She looks down at the maze in front of her not knowing how to proceed. She says to her team, “I do not know where to step; what do you think?” The team responds with several ideas, but there is no commitment. After a minute or so, she steps forward and the tile in front of her rings out with an alarm. The team reacts poorly and she is unhappy as well. She thinks she has failed her team in their task. Yet, her “failure” was actually a victory. So goes this story …
This team is working through an experiential activity where, as a team, they need to walk across a grid of tiles – some tiles will set off an alarm if stepped on, others are clear. There is a safe path across to the other side and the goal is for each team to get across as soon as possible. Only the workshop facilitator (me) knows which tiles are safe and which are not. The story above is true and I saw it repeated often. These teams of experienced leaders have mental models that tell them failure is wrong under all circumstances and we need to be careful when stepping into the unknown. Once again, these are very experienced leaders who are behaving poorly within the realm of the exercise. This is the power of experiential learning – your true self will play out within the exercise. Alas, as the facilitator, I have so much to work with and the debrief will be profound.
Specifically these leader demonstrate the following behavior during the exercise:
- Openly show disdain when someone sets off an alarm vs. applauding when someone quickly steps forward;
- All stand behind the person stepping into the unknown vs. circling the maze to show visible support;
- Continue to discuss how best to figure out the problem (they do not know which tiles are safe so how can they solve the problem outside of actually stepping on tiles)
I came across the term “Fail Quickly” many years ago. I believe it was from a high-tech company in reference to computer development. The concept is simple, but does turn our standard mental model on its ear. The point is, while using all our best judgment and knowledge, we need to step into the unknown and appreciate our failures. Once those failures get out-of-the-way, we find our success. We can get to that success so much quicker and without too many battle scars, if we as leaders build the environment that supports people stepping into the unknown with the intent to make your enterprise better.
So who “won” the experiential activity? The team that had THE BREAK THROUGH and decided that they need to move quickly and communicate. As such they circled the maze (no rule against it) and pointed to where the person should step next. The excitement and applause happened both with success (no beep) and even when there was a beep. With a beep, they discovered where not to step. Yes, Beep, Beep, Beep, then safe passage. With the support of the team, they can move quickly and get across the full maze.
Success and a lesson for all leaders – Fail Quickly and We Move Together.