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Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better!

Published on 12 Nov 2021

The word 'failure' conjures up a thousand different feelings and scenarios for a thousand different individuals. Why are we so scared to fail? Why do we beat ourselves up when we do? Do we take any positivity away from the experience when we don't succeed at first?

It was actually Samuel Beckett who coined the phrase 'Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better'. Presumably the playwright was trying to emphasise that failures should not be seen as mistakes but rather a necessary connection to ultimate success. That the art is in the attempt, not in the product. 

We re-examine some of Corinne Canter's experiences with 'Group Failures' below and how it often serves as a prerequisite to ultimate effective collaboration within a team. 

As I review my decades of corporate experience working with teams, I see the teams that grew and succeeded. I see others that stagnated or fragmented under pressure.  I have always asked what works and doesn’t with teams. Sometimes it seems to be my life quest.  

If there is something successful teams do well, it’s this. They fail brilliantly.  

Failing brilliantly is about trying, failing fast, learning from the experience and immediately applying the insights. There is an absence of ego; no blame, no shame, no pointing fingers, butt kicking or raking the could’ve, would’ve, should’ves. Just a no-fuss return into the fray and a preparedness to apply the learnings from the failure. 

When this happens, it’s a beautiful thing. An unseen switch gets flipped. Single -minded focus and fixed individual positions give way to fluid collaboration. Individual sparks form an electric charge. This is what is known as group flow.

I saw this come alive recently with an executive team who wanted to learn about themselves by working with the issue of change. I divided them into smaller teams and deliberately ramped up the pressure during a change simulation. I wanted to see the behaviours which emerged.

One team made a series of badly-timed decisions within the first ten minutes. This meant their chance of recovery was somewhere south of slim to none. And they knew it. Their collective, wide- open eyes and slack jaws told the story. Their third decision – the fourth, fifth and sixth – clanged and clunked, hurtling them towards failure.

So I offered them a choice: Keep going or start again with no extra time.

They chose to start again. 

By the end of the exercise, they were the only team of four which achieved the outcome.

So what happened?

If you were in the room you would have seen it wasn’t just the change to what they were doing that made the difference. They changed how they were being. It proved to be the game changer.

The second chance brought less time but gave valuable opportunity for renewal. Each realised they had taken wrong positions. This insight led to personal and collective humility. They dropped individual agendas and became less rigid in their thinking. They opened to one another.

Failure enabled them to let go of ego and control in order to let go into collaboration. 

They went from being a group of individuals; each trying to solve the problem on their own, to a team with a dynamic collective mind, sparking off others’ strengths and talents.

One of the most common requests I receive is from organisations wanting help to create a ‘high performing’ team. I’ve spent twenty years researching what makes teams effective. I’ve taken the trials and errors; team building, helped teams build rafts and trekked with them. I even understand how best to use Lencioni’s “five dysfunctions of a team”. You name it, I’ve tested it.

Here’s what I know to be true (and I believe you do too): It isn’t common goal or clear priorities that create high performance. It is pure and simple absence of ego. It’s willingness of each team member to choose group risk over individual glory.

Let’s flick the switch and change focus. It’s time to move past the mantra of ‘high performing teams’ as a cure-all. I want to help teams understand what effective collaboration looks and feels like instead. 

About the Author: Corinne Canter is a Senior Consultant with Human Synergistics Australia. She has over 25 years of working with leaders to create high performing, toxic free teams, and workplace cultures. 

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