How to be a world class failure (& why it matters to your team).

Climbers contemplating a boulder problem

Are you good at failure? As a team or as an individual it’s likely you find this an odd question. It’s also likely that in your team you don’t like it, try hard to avoid it, quite possibly try to cover it up if it happens, and certainly avoid highlighting it or sharing it with others, as well as avoiding situations where the likelihood of failure might increase.


Bouldering is a discipline of rock climbing where the safety of a rope is not needed because the route is typically very short. Indoors or outdoors, the sport involves both the problem solving of figuring out how the holds can be used to get to the top and also the physicality of being able to execute those moves.  One of the characteristics of the sport is that it involves a lot of failure, especially when you work at the margins of your physical limits. Typically, that means you are going to fall off many times before you figure it all out and execute it correctly. Like most physical skills, the truth is that if you want to be good at it, first you’re going to suck at it – usually for a depressingly long time! Counterintuitively, the best climbers in the gym tend to be those most comfortable with falling off, but their superpower is not just a willingness to fail but the ability to make sense and learn from that failure. The failure can be described generically – you failed to reach the top and complete the problem. But also specifically, why did you fall off? Specifically? Because my left foot slipped, it wasn’t on the best part of the foothold to make the next move.


To be good at failure – and therefore at learning, it is not just acceptance that is key, but analysis. This is the difference between doing something in a mindless way versus a mindful way. Intelligent failure is about the curiosity to explore what is going wrong and why. The next attempt therefore has a specific goal and point of focus for improvement.


The great obstacle for a lot of people and teams is that the barriers to this powerful habit are strong. Most of us learnt them as children when we started to feel judged and evaluated and we realised that failure has a social consequence, that people might laugh at us, or think less of us. We built the barrier ourselves and it shows up in our language and our thoughts because we say things like, ‘I can’t’ and ‘I’m no good at’. Before too long we might set up beliefs about ourselves that are designed to stop us ever taking a step outside of our comfort zones, where by definition you are entering a space where the risk of failure and therefore embarrassment becomes a possibility. We are therefore really challenging ourselves to unlearn something and get back to a state of childlike playfulness and curiosity, unencumbered with thoughts of the result or what others might think of us.


It’s hard to break this – personally I’m certainly indebted to climbing as a sport because it has taught me a lot about exploring failure. If you have not seen this short clip of the famous conductor Benjamin Zander conducing a masterclass session with an incredibly talented young cellist, I highly recommend it, as the session is actually about re-engineering the player’s mindset with failure. Away from something to be feared and despised, and toward something that must excite our curiosity – since that point is the precise liminal space between what you can do and what you can’t do, yet.


What is also crucial, is the choice. In the moment of failing, or making a mistake or noticing how something could be done better, to choose how you are going to respond. As Viktor Frankl observed, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’.


Professor Amy Edmondson began her work on psychological safety in part because she found in some of her early PhD research that the best teams seemed to make the most mistakes. Not at all the expectation, since surely the opposite should be true? She eventually reasoned that what was happening was that the best teams were actually reporting more mistakes – and that they were able to do this because that was ok, even welcomed in those teams. The reporting of errors reflected a willingness and a curiosity to explore failure because it was ‘safe’ to do so, which is of course the exact opposite of many teams and organisational cultures where it is certainly not safe to highlight mistakes.


Great teams are great at adaptation and learning, they do it quicker and more effectively. A large part of that is to do with being good at failure. That means the humility and curiosity to explore mistakes and even to challenge success by thinking how might something be improved? Even better if…?


If the number of mistakes in your team was a KPI, the chances are you would be thinking of how to get to zero, but perhaps, (in the right context) you should be more excited about increasing that score as a marker for your willingness and ability to learn.

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