Tag Archives: failure

The Importance of Failure… and How to Do It

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Seems like failure is everywhere these days. (And no, I’m not talking about Congress.)

Parenting blogs bemoan a culture in which kids are endlessly praised and competition and challenge are scrubbed out, and beg us to let our kids fail once in a while. Leadership journals talk about the perils of playing it safe in an organization. I’m on board with all that. The NEXT Church strategy team is meeting today in Minneapolis (I had to cancel my trip because of a pastoral emergency at Tiny), and part of the energy of that conversation is toward experimentation and risk—which opens us up to potential failures as an organization.

What’s often missing from these discussions is exactly how to do this. We need practices in our organizations, schools, churches, and families, moving us from a safe existence in which the sharp edges are sanded down to a culture that accepts failure as an inevitable and worthwhile by-product of doing new things.

Here’s an article called “How I Got My Team to Fail More” from the Harvard Business Review that helps fill in some of the gaps. It’s written by Jason Seiken, an executive for PBS, who says:

Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric.

Failure.

With a twist: “If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” I told every staffer, “you’ll be downgraded.”

Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.

The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things. Executive leadership has your back.

The last sentence is probably the key to the whole thing. I have a pastor friend who told me about a member of her church council, who told his colleagues, “We need to give Pastor S. permission to fail. She should be failing at least yearly; otherwise she’s not challenging herself or us nearly enough.”

I shared this at Tiny’s leadership retreat a few weeks ago, and we chuckled at the idea of having a quota (“OK, that’s your failure for the year!”)… but I hope a seed was planted, in my mind as much as anyone’s. I’m a first-born perfectionist Presbyterian, after all; my default is to see failure as just poor stewardship.

Back to the article. Seiken found it’s not enough for us to have one another’s backs:

With the team taking risks and being rewarded for doing so, we set to work institutionalizing the new culture, adding the day-to-day processes of a lean startup.

Our development team went Agile. We began formally recognizing staffers who took risks, such as the design director who landed several impressive applicants by replacing a traditional job posting with an infographic about the position.

Crucially, we redefined success. When our first foray into web-original video production, a safe, TV-type series called “The Parent Show,” launched to fairly good reviews, we resisted the temptation to declare victory. Instead, the team challenged itself to risk breaking the PBS mold by creating a truly YouTube-native show.

I’m fascinated by this agile stuff and have spoken to groups about how we might implement it in congregations. (Come to the Oasis in October!) We lean towards agile at Tiny. Rather than having committees, the session sees itself as “dispatchers” that help call people to specific ministries to get the work of the church done—whether it’s as individuals, folks working in pairs, or a task group that meets for six months and then disbands. It’s messy, and we’re still relying on the same people too much. But it’s so much better than what we had before, which was an organizational chart that listed 11 committees, many of which hadn’t met in years.

I just reviewed our church’s October newsletter, and for a church with a worship attendance that hovers around 50, I’m excited and nervous about how chock-full it is. In the next several weeks we’ve got a blessing of the animals, a congregational breakfast, a viewing of the Place at the Table hunger documentary, CROP hunger walk, a community-wide bone marrow registry drive and health fair… not to mention the groups and studies that are ongoing. It may be too much. In fact, some of these initiatives may fail. But the failures, we trust, are information that help us refine and pursue our mission. It’s encouraging to me that each activity has a different group of people at the helm. And each is excited and energized by the work they’re doing. So on we go.

This failure stuff really hits home, though, as we think about a capital campaign to upgrade our building. Our aging facility is starting to impede our ability to minister effectively among ourselves and in our community. The numbers we’re needing to raise sound doable but ambitious. It’s fine to fail on a small scale. But there is such a thing as a catastrophic failure.

And yet.

I initially felt called to Tiny four years ago because I saw such potential in this little congregation. I still do. In those early days I kept saying to myself, “This place is going to take off or die trying.” And that was a theological statement as much as anything else. Yes, we have to be good stewards of our time, resources and legacy. But a church that doesn’t risk itself for the sake of the gospel isn’t much of a church at all.

~

photo credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

Lernen durch Fehler. Learning through Failure

Duolingo Levels

Duolingo Levels

(I have no idea if the German is right—that’s what Google translator came up with.)

My latest micro-obsession is Duolingo, an app that teaches foreign languages through a quiz-based game. It’s a nice interface, and the different question formats keep things interesting. I’ve taken a ridiculous amount of Spanish, but the game has helped me brush up a little. I’m hoping to get to some new material soon (you can test out of levels to move up faster).

My girls have a friend from Portugal, so they’ve decided to try to learn some Portuguese using Duolingo on the iPad. I had this identical conversation with both girls at different times this weekend:

Child: Mommy, what’s the Portuguese word for “woman”? I have to choose it from this list.
Me: I have no idea.
Child: I don’t either! How am I supposed to play this game?
Me: You guess, and it tells you whether you’re right.
Child [a few minutes later]: I didn’t pass the level! I have to start it again?
Me: Yes, but now you know the word for “woman,” don’t you?

In school, learners follow a pattern of instruction –> practice –> assessment. In Duolingo, instruction, practice and assessment are simultaneous. You learn from trial and error, from doing. Failure isn’t a setback, it provides critical information.

Life is more like Duolingo, isn’t it?

Fixing What’s (Not?) Broken

One of the guiding principles of NEXT Church is a focus on healthy congregations. That’s what drives us, rather than an ideological or theological agenda. A big part of our focus is to identify, celebrate and support places of health in our denomination so that they can propagate.

But what does health look like? How do we know it when we see it? And what about churches that are currently struggling?

As a co-chair of NEXT, this is something our strategy team thinks about a lot. I think we all know (or serve) churches that are struggling, but that have a lot of potential—potential to transform, potential to be a vibrant witness to Jesus Christ in their neighborhood, potential to grow in depth or breadth of ministry. Maybe they need a little inspiration, or somehopeful connection with colleagues, or a burst of energy and new ideas that comes from, say, a kick-butt conference.

But we also know that countless churches will close their doors over the next several decades.

Read the rest at the NEXT Church website.

Friday Link Love

Today I’m off to a presbytery training on congregational transformation. So in lieu of a long blog post today, I’m going to share some links that I’ve collected this week and found interesting.

The Coming Decade Will Be About Trust

I think the next decade will be about trust. This is the only decade in history that will be formed wholly by Gen X—we are so small that our age of power is brief. But research from sources like Tammy’s Erikson’s book, What’s Next Gen X?, shows that the most pronounced traits of Gen X are no patience for veneers, hierarchy, and BS-laden idealism. Gen X will oversee a decade of trust.

What do you think? I agree about the BS detector. Some interesting thoughts in her post about what it means to be transparent.

The Anti-Social Network: Is Facebook Making Us Sad?

The researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,” he told me.

I’m not sure I buy this. Yes, some people seem to have it all together on FB. (Heck, maybe I seem that way to other people.) But I think there are just as many examples of people using Facebook to kvetch and vent about their lives.

Any folks out there willing to run through their newsfeeds and tally up positive vs. negative statuses?

Comfort Kills

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading positive psychologist and the author of the book The How of Happiness, told me a funny story about her parents. They emigrated from Russia when she was a child and often go back to visit. When they come back they always say: Oh, America is so boring! Everything is so easy: you drive to the supermarket, park, get beautiful and fresh groceries for a reasonable price, put them in your car, and drive home. In Russia the same shopping trip is a huge challenge. Not only do you have to go to ten different stores to get what you need (and half of them are probably out of stock) but you also might get mugged on the way there. There’s mafia everywhere. They say it’s a “high” to be there.

Conclusion 2: Lack of comfort brings excitement, comfort brings boredom.

I’m a little concerned that the article glamorizes what it’s like to be poor. Still, I tend to agree that in general, “We live in a society where comfort has become a value and a life goal. But comfort reduces our motivation for introducing important transformations in our lives.”

Be More Successful by Planning for Frequent Failure

Every day we try to do well and minimize our failures. The problem is, we’re going to fail frequently no matter what. Rather than trying to minimize the quantity of failures, you should try reducing their impact. Here’s why…

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And lastly, a book recommendation. At our training today we will be discussing Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change by Robert Quinn. I’ve read a lot of books about leadership through change, and while this wasn’t my favorite, I liked it in spite of myself. I didn’t like this term “the fundamental state of leadership”; it seemed clunky and obtuse to me, so in my mind I substituted “authentic leadership.” Quinn argues that leadership is more a state of mind than a set of activities. This is a book that fosters self-examination, with each chapter concluding with probing questions and self-assessments. I’ve decided to focus on one chapter per month over the next several months to see what that gets me. I also like the dialectical nature of Quinn’s leadership attributes—for example, “reflective action.” Too much reflectiveness and you never get anywhere; too little reflection and you can become capricious.

I’m eager to see what the other pastors in the training have to say about it.