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

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Failure… and How to Do It

  1. Bob Braxton

    agree whole heartedly
    Today there is a letter to the editor about the contracting of security clearance
    and the writer opines that conclusion is – it is a waste of time.
    Because they tell the reference that anything they say can go to the candidate
    who is being investigated.
    Of three organizations where there were performance reviews, the first was a
    happy experience because there were frequent raises and promotions
    (my pay was about five times the amount after only eleven years).
    However, the most recent (a non-profit) I felt like the entire process
    was a waste of time – for exactly the reason – that it does not / did not
    encourage stretching and reaching out to do new things
    (where failure could be more likely).
    This is totally different from not doing ones job.
    That I was totally obsessive about.
    As a church member but not the actual professional,
    I also question the value of what I have seen over the decades
    in church leader “performance” evaluations.
    In my view, it treats the professional work as if it is
    something totally different from what the work (the Call)
    actually is.
    It is clear that the one with a Call is already answerable
    to a “higher power.”

    Reply
  2. Martha Spong

    In a segment about the likely government shutdown last night, Rachel Maddow had some great video comparing the current American Gladiators TV show with its precursor – in which people actually *failed.* it hasn’t been that long! but we really have squeezed out failure in favor of medal-winning mediocrity.
    Here’s a link, which may or may not translate:
    http://video.msnbc.msn.com/rachel-maddow/53109221/

    Reply

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