Failure Must be an Option


I have heard people say all my life, “Failure is not an option,” and today, I would like to challenge this belief and say that in order to succeed, failure must be an option.

One of the things you learn when training to be a coach is the art of deep listening.  When practicing this art with a team, the coach is listening to people and hearing what they are saying.  You also listen to things like tone of voice because much information can be heard in what is not said.  Changes in tone, pace and volume when they speak and the inflection in their voice can give clues to what the speaker is thinking and feeling.

The coach is listening for things like passion and energy when people speak, they are listening for things that reveal the teams core values, strengths and areas of weakness or greatness where probing questions can begin to push them to new levels or wider areas of thinking.

Another thing that the coach is listening for is false assumptions and any limiting beliefs that the team or individuals on the team may have that are holding them back from success or from breakthrough.  The belief that failure is not an option is an example of a false assumption or limiting belief that can hold a team back.  This belief undermines the scrum value of courage and needs to be broken in order for a team to become higher performing.

If a person or a team believes that failure is not an option, they may be unwilling to take risks that will enable them to succeed in big ways.  They may be unwilling to be innovative or try new ways of solving problems and will instead remain stuck in old thought patterns and safe ways of doing things even if those ways limit success or are not the best thing to do for the company, the team, or the customer.  Safe is better than failure because failure is not an option.

When the coach, or scrum master acting in the capacity of team coach, identifies that their team is stuck with a limiting belief and can’t seem to move forward, one technique to help them can be to ask powerful questions.

Powerful questions cause people to think outside of their normal thought patterns and step outside of their limiting beliefs.  They cause people to start to form their own solutions to problems which empowers them to take ownership of actions and moves them forward towards actually solving problems faster.

Powerful questions are curious, open ended questions that don’t try to push the listener (coachee) to a specific answer.  The job of the coach is not to trick the listener to the solution they have in their mind, but to just be curious and ask questions.  The answers of the listener set the pace – the listener is in the driver’s seat – the coach is just being so curious that the listener discovers new information through the questions being asked.

A few examples of powerful questions to break the limiting belief of failure not being an option might be:

What could you try?

What would an experiment look like?

What’s the worst that could happen?

What’s already working that you could build on?

How could you deliver success incrementally?

If it was safe to fail, what would you try?

Whose support would you need to try an experiment?

How do you know that failure is not an option?

Who do you need to ask for permission?

Who can help you succeed?

Who can clear the obstacles?

What do you need in order to feel safe to try something different?

What could you learn if you tried and failed?


Coaching Teams Tips from the Trenches


Earlier this week I met with a group of coaches of various experience levels from different backgrounds to talk about coaching teams.  We discussed together our successes and failures in attempts to learn from one another.  What follows is a list of the results of what we discovered together.

  1. Create an environment where it is safe for people to fail – In order for teams an individuals to learn and grow they must be able to experience both success and failure.  Most of us learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do from our successes.  When we protect and buffer teams from failure we cripple them.  When we give them all the answers to their problems and provide solutions for them we stunt their growth.  As coaches, we have to step back and  help teams have the courage to make decisions, investigate new ways of doing things, take risks, and explore areas they have feared to enter previously.  They can’t do that if we will not move out of their way and allow them space to succeed and fail.  Failure is a learning experience.  We can’t always just take over when we see them struggling.  We have to give them room to grow.  We have to be confident enough in our ability as coaches to help teams navigate their way back up from failure to success that we have the courage to allow them to experience enough failure to grow and become higher performing.  This doesn’t mean that we should stand by and watch them walk head first off a cliff.  As experts, we should know when to blow the whistle – but use the whistle sparingly only when it is no longer safe to fail.
  2. Believe in people in ways that give them the courage to believe in themselves – As coaches we have to look beyond what we see standing in front of us today.  We have to be able to look at what is in front of us today and see characteristics in people and in teams and roll those things forward weeks, months, and years ahead in our thinking in order to see the great things they have the potential to become.  We can’t think of it as what they might become.  We have to see it as who they are.  Coaches have the power to activate and unlock dormant gifts and talents in people by believing in them in ways that they can’t even believe in themselves.  People don’t need someone to patronize them, they need someone who truly has vision for who they are and can articulate specifically what they see in them and why those things are powerful and amazing.  They need a coach who can point out the simple yet amazing things they do and the impacts that those actions have on the team and on their career so people can have a light shining on the path that shows them what direction to walk.
  3. Use The Language of Appreciation – Speaking to people in an encouraging language that tells them that they are valued and appreciated motivates teams and individuals and makes them want to move forward.  It builds a solid connection and helps to form a trusting relationship with their coach because they see that the coach cares about them and believes in them.  (See the other posts in this blog for more about the Language of Appreciation.)
  4. Ask Powerful Questions – Serving as an expert has a place in coaching when it is time to teach.  Becoming a mentor and walking hand in hand with people also has a place, but true coaching involves taking on a different role of allowing people to enter a place of self discovery.  Asking powerful questions is an art that helps to facilitate this discovery process.  Asking powerful questions can help people move outside the box of their normal thinking.  Questions help them to develop their own conclusions and solve their own problems which means that they actually take ownership of the solutions and plans they make for their future.  When people design their own futures instead of having those plans handed to them they are more likely to succeed at accomplishing the goals they set because they are motivated by their own ideas and empowered to make changes along the way to reach what they define as success.
  5. Treat each team as individual and allow them to have their own culture/don’t create a mirror image of yourself – Every team we coach has a different group of individuals in the makeup and should be encouraged to develop a culture based upon the individuals on the team.  Even if the teams have a similar purpose they should have their own characteristics that are developed from within the team.  I often view the multiple teams I coach like I view my multiple children.  Each of them has their own unique character, strengths, and weaknesses.  Each of them must be coached differently in order to become high performing.  Each team must be assessed individually and the proper techniques must be applied that will help them grow.  Making the mistake that we can duplicate the exact same methods, techniques, and cookie cutter process to every team we coach is harmful.  We cannot expect that every team will look the same or to look like us – in fact, I dare say that if they do this is the sign of an immature coach.  When I enter organizations and see teams that are identical I immediately think about the cargo culting phenomenon where people do things that they see others doing because they think they will get some set of results.  However, since they don’t really understand the underlying reasons why the first person took those actions the repeat of the behavior adds no value.
  6. Don’t get in the middle of conflict – force them to storm instead – Teams need to have constructive and healthy conflict.  Sometimes the conflict turns unhealthy and people don’t want to deal with it properly.  There is a very real temptation to try to solve the problems of the team by getting in the middle and handling it for them.  Bad idea.  As a coach it is our job to teach people healthy ways to resolve conflict so it is better to help individuals form a plan for confronting and dealing with conflict or to create a way to surface the conflict with the team.  In order for teams to become high performing they must first go through the process of forming, storming, and norming.  Unfortunately, too many teams never really storm because they never learn to have healthy conflict.  The elephant stays in the room and everyone just walks around him.  Teaching individuals and teams to address the elephant together using appropriate and safe communication styles, healthy conflict resolution techniques, and problem solving skills serves a better longer term purpose than getting in the middle as a go between to make today more peaceful.