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Failure as a Teacher

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

 

I remember the first time I performed CPR like it was yesterday, though it was more than 25 years ago – July 4, 1992. My first cardiac arrest was a tough day in many ways, and took me a long time to process. I was so green, so naïve, and so young. I had training, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I had the support of the experienced team that I was working with to help guide me, despite the mistakes that I made. I tell you, I made plenty.

 

Probably the worst mistake I made that day was expecting to save that young person’s life. On TV people get CPR for a minute or two, cough, and are pink, healthy, and hugging their mom. Reality is so much different than that. It’s a workout for the provider, and brutal to the person receiving it. It truly is a lifesaver: people who have a cardiac arrest outside the hospital and receive CPR are 300% more likely to live[1]. My stepfather was one of them – he had a spontaneous cardiac arrest on his 50th birthday while on a morning run, received CPR, and was able to be resuscitated by other EMTs and paramedics and ultimately recovered fully, other than a few weeks’ lost memories.

 

Each one of those EMTs and Paramedics was, at one point of their careers, just like I was on that July day – brand new, scared, flooded with adrenaline, and making mistakes. It is through those mistakes that they were coached and learned to become the skilled practitioners that they became, ultimately saving a life that meant a lot to me personally. Adaptability and creative problem solving are developed by being in an environment that allows learning by error and coached recovery from mistakes. These skills are what allow EMS professionals to do what they do to the level of effectiveness that they can.

 

In business, too often do we find ourselves expected to be perfect, the first time and every time. In a time where the young are being afflicted with anxiety and depression, we see an increasing trend of expecting perfection from ourselves and each other[2]. This drive towards perfectionism is associated with drastic harmful results, including suicide[3]. Some will want to dismiss this as a sensitivity of the young. However, such complaints are ageless:

 

… I find by sad Experience how the Towns and Streets are filled with lewd wicked Children, and many Children as they have played about the Streets have been heard to curse and swear and call one another Nick-names, and it would grieve ones Heart to hear what bawdy and filthy Communications proceeds from the Mouths of such… (Robert Russel, 1695)[4]

 

Or,

 

Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more

worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more

corrupt. (Horace, c. 20 BCE)[5]

 

Recognizing that this is not a generational problem, but a systemic issue is the first step. As leaders, we must create a culture of intelligent risk-taking, experimentation, and supportive recovery from mistakes and failure. Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Reed Hastings from Netflix, and James Quincey from Coca-Cola have been taking moves to establish these tenets in their cultures[6]. Whether canceling hit shows because they’re too easy and not risky enough, encouraging experimentation, or simply pushing management to get past the fear of failure, these CEOs have been driving cultures of innovation by creating safe places to fail[7].

 

Smith College has created a program on not just surviving failure, but on using it to advance[8]. It teaches the women who take the coursework to accept, understand, learn, and move forward from their failures, rather than be humiliated and intimidated by them[9]. As a result, they are more prepared to confidently approach creative endeavors and experiment where many of us would balk for those same fears that they have learned to move past.

 

As many as 1 of 3 businesses have a culture averse to risk[10]. Part of this may be a result of our ability to forget the lessons that we have learned from when we have made a mistake – if we have bothered to do so at all[11]. How many of us regroup after a project, especially a failed one, and discuss what has happened, what we have learned, and then actually take action from those learnings? I can’t say that I have ever seen an organization do it well, if at all.

 

If a business makes a determined and structured effort to examine its failures – not as a finger-pointing exercise, but as a means to gain knowledge and prevent similar problems in the future, these mistakes can be positive events[12]. This means taking an honest assessment of what happened, how it happened, why it happened, has it happened before, and assembling it into documentation that can be shared around the organization. This can be a scary proposition in companies where executives are jostling for position and power instead of working towards the same goals.

 

Ultimately, though, business is a human enterprise. There will be mistakes. Some of those mistakes will result in great advances – penicillin, Post-It notes, and inkjet printers were all created as a result of errors[13]. While most of us will not create the next penicillin, we may create something extremely valuable for our business if we are in an environment that allows and supports experimentation and error, and then examines those errors to make sure it learns everything it can about them to reduce the risk of them happening again.

[1] https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/17/the-cpr-we-dont-see-on-tv/

[2] https://hbr.org/2018/01/perfectionism-is-increasing-and-thats-not-good-news

[3] ibid

[4] A Little Book for Children and Youth https://books.google.com/books?id=yaGqC78TGUcC&pg=PA211&lpg=PA211&dq=A+little+book+for+children,+and+youth+russel&source=bl&ots=lWdrfBCssf&sig=pIin7ggNRls8ww-C-NmwR_mpPts&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CvWyUKvREqXp0QHGs4GIAw#v=onepage&q=A%20little%20book%20f&f=false

 

[5] Book III of Odes

[6] https://hbr.org/2017/11/how-coca-cola-netflix-and-amazon-learn-from-failure

[7] Ibid

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/fashion/fear-of-failure.html

[9][9] ibid

[10] https://hbr.org/2016/05/increase-your-return-on-failure

[11] https://hbr.org/2016/02/why-organizations-forget-what-they-learn-from-failures

[12] https://hbr.org/2016/05/increase-your-return-on-failure

[13] https://www.businessinsider.com/these-10-inventions-were-made-by-mistake-2010-11#scotchgard-10

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