Sometimes the best thing you can do for a team is let the wheels fall off. The best, most lasting lessons often come when we fail at something. Failure is not a necessary ingredient to learning, but success can sometimes reduce interest in development and growth. As a leader, your experience may allow you to see a failure coming that the team can’t. Your options at that point are to help them avoid the negative outcome, or to create a safe space for them to experience a negative outcome without damaging the business. I think we should do the latter more often.
A team in a state of dysfunction or underperformance can be reorganized, restaffed, or rechartered, but that implies that the problem was in one of those areas. What do you do when the root cause is cultural? When adding someone or changing the structure will not be enough? You have to be prepared to let the team fail.
How to help your team fail productively
Accelerate the failure. Help the team get to the negative outcome faster to learn the lesson sooner. This may mean helping them resolve their decision-making process, or improving their access to resources without intervening on the decisions themselves.
Protect the individuals–and the business. If the team is working on something critical for the business, you may need to create an interim milestone for the team to miss. For example, you may set up a review with a leader from another division, or add a check-in meeting with a key decision-maker. Failure in this setting leaves time to learn the lessons and get back on track before the business-critical milestone is reached.
Discuss the failure and learn from it. Once the team has experienced the setback, call a specific meeting to discuss it. Gather observations from the team about potential causes, ways it could have potentially been avoided, and how they will choose to operate differently moving forward. It is important to separate this meeting from any other conversations about the project or individual performance.
Make it clear that “heroes” are not helpful. In a corporate team setting, heroes mask systemic problems and delay the learning process for the organization. Cultural, systemic, or process issues are often not recognized in the early stages when they can be treated most efficiently because a well-intentioned person goes beyond their area of responsibility to “save the day.” Today’s small crisis is avoided, but the seeds of a future, bigger breakdown are sown.
Why it matters
Missing team goals is never a good thing, but it can create progress in the form of learning and growth. How does your organization handle failure? How do you ensure that you learn and grow from your career failures?