Why it’s OK to Let People Fail

My first “real job”, part-time in high school, was at a pizza restaurant. I ended up working there for several years, even into college. I eventually was promoted to assistant manager! When I was working there in my early 20s I had reached a point where I could do any job in the store faster and better than most of the other employees. (Note that this is not something special; I only reached that point via repetition and practice, and I suspect this is very very common at restaurants.) One thing I distinctly remember is where we would be closing at the end of the night, and I’d be running the store with a few other teenagers who were newly hired. There would be a task, like “clean the walk-in” or whatever, and it was hard for me to assign that task to a new employee knowing it would take them 45 minutes and I could do it in 10. But I gradually had to learn that they needed that 45 minutes to learn how to do it, and eventually get faster and better at it. After all, did I want to be the one person that did every job in the store, forever?

This is an anecdote that is very relatable for any team, namely, How Do You Scale?

Let People Fail…

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

Richard Branson

If you look around, at many organizations there is that one superstar, with the leaders jokingly stating, “We need to figure out how to clone person X!” The real answer is, of course, that you cannot clone that person but you might be able to grow another superstar. What I’ve found is most true superstars, if you talk to them they will discuss how their experience and skill is hard-won from a series of mistakes and failures.

The less-experienced team members need to know that it’s ok to make mistakes now and then, as long as they learn from those mistakes and grow and get better.

…but with Guardrails…

That being said, you need to have a safety net in place for those mistakes. Obviously, you don’t want to be delivering mistakes to your customers. The way to accomplish this is to ensure there are guardrails in place to ensure that mistakes are caught and addressed before having too large an impact. This includes things like having the more experienced or skilled team members do peer reviews, or having a culture of integrated testing, or having the learning team members work on lower-criticality tasks or tasks with longer lead times.

…and Hiring the Right People.

For this to work, you also need to ensure you are recruiting and hiring for this approach. This means you are not necessarily hiring someone because they can do a specific task or have a specific skillset. Instead, look for people that have a proven track record of being able to learn new things or people who can give specific examples of times they made a mistake and learned from it.

***

If you want to grow and scale your team, experience has shown us that this is almost impossible by just hiring people who can “hit the ground running”. Instead, you need to build a culture and processes that allow people to make mistakes, and learn and grow from those mistakes. That is how you can build a team that can grow to meet whatever challenge is in front of them.

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