“Each one of you will fail in the next three months,” I would say to all the college students in my class. Now I say this to my teams. If I’ve dredged up a recurring stress nightmare for you; hang on! I’ll share the secrets to viewing failure as the path to innovation, creativity, and growth in team leadership.

I’ll start with a potentially controversial assumption – you and every person on your team are inherently creative. That’s right. You don’t need more creativity on your team. Instead, lead your team in such a way that:

  1. Creates an environment ripe for discovery
  2. Teaches them to fail productively

These two simple (not easy) steps can mean the difference between a team that shares ideas, collaborates to find innovative solutions, and creates a competitive advantage for your business vs. one that stagnates from dysfunction.

First, let’s look at why your team isn’t sharing and creating in the first place. The truth lies in reason the first statement in this blog creates nightmares for many; we fear failure.

When I insisted all my students would fail, the blood drained from their faces — without exception. These were not historically young college students. They were all adults with an average age span between 24-34 years, they worked in the ‘real’ world, they had families, and yet the thought of failing terrified them. I see the same reaction when I train teams to behave more cohesively. From day one, students and team members are terrified to fail – so I name their fear of failure. I bring it out into the open and then I intentionally reframe their learning environment.

Where does the fear of failure come from?

There are many causes, but some of the most common are:

  • Unchecked criticism
  • Experiencing humiliation at defeat
  • Traumatic event in front of a group
  • Significant loss associated with a risk

Is your team afraid of failure?

To answer this question, consider each statement and the degree to which you’ve observed these tell-tale behaviors from your team.

  1. Resist new or challenging projects.
  2. Self-sabotage by procrastinating on deliverables or failing to follow through with goals.
  3. Use of negative statements indicating a lack of confidence in the team.
  4. The team delays action until things are ‘perfect.’

To overcome a team’s fear of failure takes more than pointing out its existence.

Reframing Failure

Do you know who’s really good at failing? Scientists. That’s right; scientists have to fail to be successful. When an experiment fails, scientists have one more data point from which to define a solution. Each failure is one step closer to the “aha” moment we all crave.

To encourage your team to explore their collective creativity, reframe the way they look at work processes as a scientific lab. When I teach and train, I call our safe place to discover, explore, and create a learning lab.

Using a Learning Lab to Teach Your Team to Fail

I’m going to share the process I refined, with lots of failures and successes, that led to unparalleled creativity from my student and client teams.

  1. Desensitize the team to the word ‘fail.’ Use the word, promise everyone that they will fail—and ultimately recover. Share your stories of measured failure; how you felt and what you learned. Remind the team that their experiments may fail, but they are not failures as people. Yes, they will need to hear you say it.
  2. Make the distinction between measured failure and careless risk-taking. Trying an idea that is well researched, well thought out, and tested that ultimately does not drive sales is a measured failure. Ignoring the law and ethical business practices to bring a ‘cool’ product to market that could harm consumers is careless.
  3. Fully define and visualize success. What is the team ultimately striving for? What problem are you solving? What does the future with the successful solution look like? Write it down, make details concrete, and keep the vision in front of the team at all times.
  4. Start with a hypothesis. This common step in the scientific method is “a …proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.” In other words, what does the team believe will happen if they try ‘X’ idea based on what they know now?
  5. Test the idea. The team’s test could be as elemental as presenting to the leadership team or an online survey with customers. The point is to gather more evidence, get more ideas, and check the results against the team’s hypothesis.
  6. Use triple sight to reinforce and manage the team’s progress. Start with goal setting, plan for feedback and debriefs, but most importantly, make adjustments as the team progresses through their work. On a consistent schedule review what has worked, what failed, what the team learned from the each proven disproved hypothesis. Using what I call responsive review fills out your teams understanding of how their ideas will or will not get them to their vision.For more information on responsive review watch this short video about using Triple Sight.
  7. Repeat from step one!

When I teach my students and clients this process to heighten our collective creativity, it’s not long before the fear of failure is all but forgotten in lieu of collaboration and inspiration.

Please share your successes AND failures with encouraging creativity on your teams. Let’s learn together!


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