Creating a Safe Place to Fail


It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all. — Edward de Bono

Camp stoves are dangerous. You’re lighting highly flammable, heated, pressurized, and vapourized fuel to boil water. In the winter stove gas won’t freeze and will actually be at below zero temperatures. If you spill it on bare skin you’ll be flash frozen. I’ve taught many kids to use a stove safely, which means that I’ve seen just about every mistake possible.

I came across an adult once who was throwing matches at a stove from 15 feet away. The stove scared her so much she didn’t be anywhere near it, and the leader that tasked her to start it wasn’t anywhere nearby. Her technique didn’t work.

So when I saw three Scouts having trouble with their stove a couple picnic tables down, I handed the fire extinguisher to another leader and asked him to stand behind them. I knew it wasn’t going to actually blow up, but there would be a big flame and some shaky voices calling for “Scouter Bernie!”

They extinguished the fire without incident. The Scouts learned a) to listen to instructions before playing with matches, b) have a back-up plan (like a fire extinguisher) nearby for what might go wrong, and c) how to disassemble a camp-stove into its constituent parts for cleaning, which also made them more familiar with the stove’s operation. It become part of the troop’s folklore, and one of the stories that got told and laughed about around the campfire for years afterwards.

As managers developing your people is one of your biggest  jobs. It helps make the entire organization more effective. Giving your team and staff a safe place to fail and learn from it is important to this development. Consider a culture where failure is not tolerated. Mistakes are punished, risks are avoided, and covering your ass becomes the standard operating procedure. Nobody is willing to come up with new ideas, take responsibility, or do anything more than get through the day.

Now consider a culture that encourages learning, expects and deals with mistakes, and taking risk and responsibility are the standard operating procedure. We can’t tell our people that they need to learn and take risks, and then punish them for it. We should expect them to take risks, test, and learn.Our job is to create a safe place for that to happen.

This means we need take risks too, even when somebody does thing differently than you would. Even to the point of letting it catch fire – within reason, and long as you have the fire extinguisher ready.


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