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Failure Can Be a Lesson in Disguise

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"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." - Robert F. Kennedy

Confronting failure is a supreme challenge whether you are raising kids, teaching school or managing a business team. Done wrong, it stifles innovation, alienates top performers, eliminates all risk-taking, and turns a team of contributors into drones. I had the chance to compare notes on the subject with Steve Snyder, CIO/CTO of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Steve has won a number of CIO awards including the CIO Magazine CIO 100 Award 2014 and Computerworld Top 100 Premier Leader in IT 2013, and was the Boston Business Journal and Mass High Tech CIO of the Year in 2012. Here are Steve's insights on the topic of delegation and dealing with failure.

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Steve Snyder - (Twitter: @stevengsnyder) - CIO/CTO of MCCA

Many managers unconsciously limit their team's performance because they are afraid to relinquish absolute control. But this reluctance to loosen their hard-won level of control can bleed the life out of the team by stifling creativity and leading to a revolving door of unhappy staff.

If your parent never let go of the back of your bicycle seat when your training wheels came off, you might still be relying on them to keep you from falling. As a manager, you have to let go of the bicycle seat for your staff to grow. Keep shouting words of encouragement to your team, and be ready for the occasional skinned knee or bruised ego. Valuable benefits come with the experience that the team gains through testing their ideas and either succeeding or failing. Both of these outcomes have enormous value.

"It's not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts." - Zig Ziglar

Granting a measured and progressive level of autonomy to employees shows that you value them as intelligent, engaged, and creative individuals. As you empower your staff with growing levels of trust, you will see a collaborative environment emerge. The team will start asking, "Why don't we try this?" These are the folks that will never say, "That's the way we have always done it." While most organizations can not be as open as Nordstrom's employee manual on customer satisfaction suggests, we all can strive for a happy medium that fosters this team mindset.

Nordstrom Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

"If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." - Ken Robinson

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
As you shift work from your plate onto your staff's, your vision for the organization starts to trickle-down and propagate. Team members begin to understand better where they fit in the organization, why their job is important, and most importantly, how they add value.

Stay out of the swamp. When something goes amiss, don't search for the who is at fault. Rather, find the what went wrong and talk about that. There is no faster way to kill creative risk-taking and innovation in teams, than to chastise those who try new things. If your dad yelled at you every time you crashed your bike, would you have wanted to get right back on and try again? I think not.

Failure Can Have A Positive Outcome For The Business

Was the Post-it® Note a failure? In 1968, a 3M scientist developed a reusable adhesive that didn't really stick. The glue he created could hold paper together, but was not strong enough to maintain the bond when pulled on. Unfortunately, the scientist was trying to make a super glue. It would take 12 years and a flash of eureka to turn the glue that wouldn't stick into the Post-it Note.

A Team That Is Not Afraid To Fail, Is Not Afraid To Try New Things

Embracing failure means understanding the different types of failure and preparing for them. You certainly need to avoid the type of failure from which recovery is no longer an option. As a fledgling pilot, Steve's flight instructor drilled into him the process of stall recovery until it became second nature. The alternative to recovering from a stall is to become a smoking crater in the ground. An airplane in a stalled state is an airplane failing to fly. Temper the range of risk exposure in your portfolio with some low to moderate-level risks. Learn the stall recovery procedure. Keep a vigilant eye on the higher risks among your projects and be ready to pull the plug when absolutely necessary. Quickly analyze what went wrong.

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

Remember, the idea is to foster innovation and independence, but not to encourage failure, especially failure due to sloppiness or unpreparedness. When failure does occur, recover quickly. Experiment, try new things, fail fast, learn, adjust quickly, and keep moving forward. Failure becomes damaging when you take too long to diagnose and course correct. Adopting an iterative mindset is key to success.

This post was co-authored by Steve Snyder, CIO/CTO of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

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