“Failure” Is Part of the Game

One of my favorite work maxims is: If you’re not fucking up, you’re not trying hard enough.

I try to drive this home with all of my teams in all of my projects. But what does it actually mean, and how do you actually create a culture that encourages this?

Baseball offers some beautiful insights into this. In baseball, if you manage to hit the ball successfully 30 percent of the time over the course of your career, you are considered a great hitter, quite possibly a Hall of Famer. That means you’re “failing” 70 percent of the time. But no one thinks of it that way, because hitting a tiny baseball coming at you at 90 miles per hour from 60 feet away is freakin’ hard.

If you’re going to adopt this attitude in your own work, you have to be clear about what a good success rate actually is, and you have to celebrate when you achieve that rate. In Silicon Valley, for example, most VCs are in the high-risk, high-reward business. Many VCs cite a 10 percent hit rate as success. If they hit that rate, they celebrate.

With some of my projects, I go so far as to add, “Failure of effort” to my checklist of success. For example, in my second Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, I had one workout that went horribly awry. I actually checked that off as a success indicator, because it gave me confidence that I was really testing the model rather than playing it safe.

The other important thing to do is to differentiate between different kinds of failure. I like to think of it as failure of neglect versus failure of effort. One of my favorite coaches in baseball always says that he’ll never complain about a player getting thrown out trying to steal, because it’s a failure that stems from effort, not neglect. (Stat geeks object vociferously to this strategy, but that’s a topic for another day.)

With my teams, I try to go out of my way to reward people for failure of effort, because I want to encourage people to follow their instincts and take risks. I’m not always good at this, especially in high-stakes situation.

Last July, we had a terrible Delta Dialogues meeting, which was documented in our final report. There was one moment in particular when one of the facilitators advocated strongly for a particular move that the rest of us did not feel good about. I supported it anyway, because I understood his reasoning and because he felt so strongly about it. The move didn’t work, and he felt awful about it.

In our debrief, I tried to state as clearly as possible that, if I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. We were dealing with a lot of complexity, and we had to make strong moves if we were going to be successful. That meant we were going to make mistakes, and we needed to be okay with mistakes of effort. I wanted my teammate to understand that I supported him and believed in him, and a mistake of effort wasn’t going to change that.

Still, I’m not sure I conveyed that message successfully, because I was absolutely dejected by the overall outcome, and I was probably sending very mixed messages. In particular, I didn’t think we had prepared adequately for the meeting — failures of neglect — and I was very angry about that.

In the end, it all worked out. We were ultimately honest with ourselves about what we controlled and what we didn’t, and we made a lot of adjustments based on what had happened. In a followup meeting two months later, my colleague made the exact same move. This time, it was perfect, and that meeting ended up being the best one of the whole project.

The key to doing anything hard is to strive for perfection, but to expect a certain amount of failure. In practice, this is hard, especially when you’re a high achiever used to a certain level of success. Your ability to embed this mindset into structures (such as your success checklist) will help you do this more effectively, but at the end of the day, it’s all about practice.

Three Tips on Life from Pete Rose

Last month, ESPN launched a film series, which includes a series of web shorts. The first short in the series was a piece on baseball’s Hit King, Pete Rose, entitled, “Here Now.” There’s a line from Rose in the film that I especially loved, where he outlines his philosophy on hitting, on business, on life:

  • Be aggressive
  • Be more aggressive
  • Never be satisfied

Rose obviously had its flaws (as do we all), but this much is indisputable: He was a great ballplayer, one of the most exciting and inspiring ballplayers ever to watch, and a good manager. We could all learn a lot from how he played the game.

Moneyball and High-Performance Collaboration

On Friday night, the movie, Moneyball, opens in theaters nation-wide. It’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, which I reviewed on this blog back in 2003. I was pretty shocked that they turned a book about how data is changing baseball into a movie starring Brad Pitt. I’m even more shocked to hear that the movie is pretty good, even by sports fan standards. Regardless, it’s a great excuse to revisit the ideas in this most excellent book and to explore the implications on high-performance collaboration.

In a nutshell, Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, who used (what was then considered) radical new ways of measuring performance in order to stay competitive in a market where other teams (e.g. the Yankees) were spending orders of magnitude more money on talent. It documents the huge, ongoing culture shift in baseball away from old-school, hard-scrabble views on player evaluation to a more data-driven system.

In my book review, I wrote:

How do we measure the effectiveness of collaboration? If we can’t measure this accurately, then how do we know if we’re getting better or worse at it? Baseball has the advantage of having well-defined rules and objectives. The same does not hold with most other areas, including collaboration. Is it even possible to measure anything in these areas in a meaningful way?

I think we’ve made progress in exploring this question. There’s a world-wide trend toward leveraging the tremendous amount of data now available to us in order to try and understand, in real-time, how we behave and why. This is a good thing, and we need to see a lot more of this.

At the same time, we also need to be careful about a potentially false sense of confidence about what all this data actually means. I love what Joe Posnanski wrote about Bill James, the father of sabermetrics:

If there is a guiding principle to all of Bill’s work, it is this: What difference does it make? The world is a complicated place. Baseball is a complicated game. This, more than anything, is what the Bill-as-cartoon people miss. He does not think that there are RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, certainly not to the questions that rage in his head. He just thinks that there are ways to get closer to the truth.

“We will never figure out baseball,” he says. “We will never get close to figuring out baseball.”

This, I think, is the critical final piece. Curiosity might have been the flint, distrust of conventional wisdom might have been the steel, but that only gives you a spark. What turned the work into a raging fire was that Bill James has never really believed that he had figured it out. He never even believed that you COULD figure it out. All he wanted to do was get the conversation going, advance the ball, give people new things to think about, let the discussion evolve and keep evolving.

Replace “baseball” with “life,” and you have a philosophy worth living by.

Picture by pursuethepassion. Licensed: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Appreciative Inquiry in Baseball

During last Saturday’s playoff game between the Cubs and Marlins, Tim McCarver raised an interesting point about baseball players. He noted that when a player was hitting well, he would usually just shrug his shoulders about it and not try to analyze it for fear of jinxing things. However, when a player was in a slump, he could give entire dissertations on everything he was doing wrong — elbow too high, stance too open, swinging under the ball, etc.    (9D)

What does this say about baseball players? What does it say about human nature? Would ballplayers be better off if they focused their energies on why they were successful, and shrugged off their slumps?    (9E)