Piercing The Veil With Failure

Years ago, I worked with a team, and they showed some remarkable results after I suggested some pretty bold changes. On that team, there was one person who continued to work the way they always did. The team was frustrated with them and eventually exhausted themselves, trying to get them to participate. The whole team went back to the way they did things before.

The manager called me into their office and asked, “Why did you let them quit?”

The reality is that this group thought they were incredible before I suggested my changes. The manager’s incredulous tone came from losing even better results that they didn’t believe was possible.

This is a somewhat oblique way to create transparency. The failure in losing results helped to contrast a different set of results and ways of working. Failure has a funny way of doing that.

Often I’m engaged as a coach for groups, and some people believe I’ll “Drive change” or “Make them better” I make it clear that everyone gets to choose to listen to me or not. I’ll be there when they do and when they don’t. They will make mistakes. Every time they make a mistake, things get slightly tenser, but people also glimpse reality a little more clearly.

That bit of glimpsing reality is gold to an organization and me. Now people stand to see things the same way and make a choice about what they’d like to do now. If everyone works in a comfortable way and the way things always go, then we are stagnant. We can make the claim we are improving, but what we’re doing is settling.

By attempting something and allowing it to fail the way it is designed, we then see something real. There are countless examples of this that exist in an organization. Let me give one that people get worked up about all the time.

A team plans a sprint, and they estimate the way they always do, divide their work as ever, and get to it. At the end of the sprint, some percentage of the work is done, but not all. Sometimes hardly any is done. All kinds of fo things happen at this moment, often to diminish the failure. Here’s a list of things that hide or dampen this moment.

  • The sprint review is canceled
  • Stakeholders and customers aren’t included
  • The stories are split so everyone can take credit

Before I go further, I’m not the kind of person who cares about how complete a sprint is. What I care about is the moment when people expect something, and it doesn’t happen. Many teams believe they are to commit to delivering what they plan. When that doesn’t happen, on their terms, it is a failure. That is fine. Glimpse reality and make a change.

These same things play out with project managers. They produce extensive work breakdown schedules, and they are inaccurate before anything starts. Instead of showing how reality has kicked the teeth in on the plan, they adjust timings and everything to show it can work still. In other words, this dampens the plan’s reality isn’t valid in favor of propping up the illusion that this plan will work.

Learning to see moments of failure as opportunities is a big part of what I do and try to teach. When people see those unexpected things, they see something real. That moment of surprise is a moment to learn. It’s when the machine shows it needs to be tuned.