mailbag: Team building events on the cheap

I’ve got a team that’s been running full steam to meet a tough deadline. We hit it — barely — but it didn’t close the deal we were hoping for.
Morale’s at an all time low.
Normally we would head out for a night at the pub, but without the expected deal, the budget for team events is gone. What can I do on the cheap to reward the team?
–A Broke Lead Engineer

Well, ABLE, you probably weren’t asking for this, but I’ll start by giving you a challenge: find a variety of team activities to do, even when you have budget. Your team might like the pub, but that’s probably the most wide-spread example of creating a culture of traditions over values. Heading to the pub every time is not going to help create an inclusive vibe for team members who aren’t comfortable with that. I enjoy taking my team out for a round every now and again just fine, but if that’s all your team does, it’s probably time for a shake up anyhow.

So let’s talk about some options:

Extra time-off for completing the project may be a short-term morale boost, if you have the authority to grant it: you’ll need to discuss that with HR. That might do something to reset team energy, and it’s likely to be popular and help with retention; but it’s unlikely to bring the team together. So even if you can pull that off, you might want to follow up with a group activity.

It’s a tough time of year for it where I live, but heading outside is a great change of pace. Head to a nearby park, or simply to the nearest sidewalk and practice some Management By Walking Around. If it’s too cold to gather outside, try googling for free tours of local buildings: libraries or town halls sometimes run tours. Call ahead to make sure they can support your group size.

If you need to stay in the office, a team pot-luck can be a great tradition, or even a brown bag lunch. Still too much work? I’ve hosted “Movie Thursday” before, where the team would vote on a movie to show, and we would all bring some monotonous work (think expense reports) to work half-heartedly on while watching the movie. You could even probably manage to spring out-of-pocket for some popcorn. Another possibility (depending on the office you work in) would be to have an in-office scavenger hunt.

If you work for a company that happens to donate to the arts, you might find that as a result employees can get in free to some local museums, or maybe there’s a nearby museum that offers free admission during certain times. This is a fantastic option that I’ve taken advantage of.

Free things to do with your kids/boyfriend/girlfriend in lists are also potential goldmines for local activities that are ALL OVER the internets.

One huge advantage all of these ideas have over pub night is that they create shared experiences: opportunities to make connections with your teammates to things outside of your workday life. Those are the sorts of traditions that can re-enforce the values of the team.


[editors note: none of these suggestions do a great job of including remote team members, but since the question was looking for a replacement for a pub night, I’ve saved that for another post ;)]

Inspiration: Teddy Roosevelt on labels

Teddy Roosevelt circa 1902
I suppose whether you think Teddy Roosevelt was a great president depends on your politics, but it would be hard to argue that he was not a successful leader.
In 1902, Roosevelt was searching for a way to end a long-running coal strike without taking extra-constitutional (quite possibly unconstitutional) action. He was being urged variously to send in federal troops to break the strike, or to send in the same troops to seize the mines from the operators. He had finally gotten both sides to agree to a temporary halt in the strike with a commission appointed to settle the dispute.
The mine operators were holding firm that this commission could not include a labor leader, lest that be construed as recognition of the miner’s union. Unsurprisingly, the miner’s union was holding just as firm that a labor leader must be on the commission.
With a flash of insight, Roosevelt suggested that he would appoint E.E. Clark, the head of the railway conductors’ union, to the commission as an “eminent sociologist”, which was acceptable to the operators.
In his own words “I at last grasped the fact that the mighty brains of these captains of industry had formulated the theory that they would rather have anarchy than tweedledum, but if I would use the word tweedledee they would hail it as meaning peace.”
A great reminder that words matter. Sometimes finding a small face-saving gesture — even a better label for the same truth — can get everyone to the table. In this case, Roosevelt found a way to end a months-long standoff that had sent coal prices skyrocketing without having to send in federal troops.

Book Report: Beyond the Resume

cover[disclaimer: this is based on a “beta” copy of this book from gitbooks. the book is not complete at this time, and may be a bit different by the time you read it. I believe that most of my comments will still apply, but I’m also likely to re-visit this when it is complete.
further disclaimer: I happen to work with Pam Selle. However, this was not a solicited review, nor was it discussed with the author.]
If you’ve seen Pam Selle talk, or listen to the Turing-Incomplete podcast, then you’re probably going to read Beyond the Resume: How to get your next job as a developer in Pam’s voice, which comes through clearly in the book’s conversational tone. In this case, that’s definitely a good thing. It’s like sitting down with a friend or colleague and getting some advice over coffee. Which is probably exactly what you’re looking for while you’re dealing with the stress of a job search looming over your head.
Of course, in this case, you’re sitting down with someone well connected in the industry who has some useful insights on how to effectively frame a job search in the candidate-friendly tech job market. I don’t agree with everything Selle has to say, but it’s certainly useful and thought provoking; and I suspect the final edit will be well worth consideration. As the subtitle indicates, Selle’s insights are focused on the developer market- while there may be some comments of generic utility, this probably won’t provide value if you’re trying to land a job as a CPA.
Overall, if you’re looking for a job as a developer, the book is well worth the read. Here’s a quick sample that I think does a great job of capturing the tone and utility of the book:
In fact, a search for “$YOURLANGUAGE interview questions” will serve you very well, because here’s an unfortunate truth:
Most engineers are terrible at interviewing.
Not only are they terrible, they often have little guidance on what they should do, what questions they should ask. Even if they do have some guidance, I can almost guarantee these kinds of technical interviews will be similar to what you can practice online. mailbag: Should I stay or should I go?

Things are getting increasingly craptacular here at [xyzco]. Every month, someone else quits, there’s been another big reorg, executives keep leaving the company, focus keeps changing, and we’re working crazy hours to complete projects that make no sense. I’m so stressed I can’t sleep.
Buuhhhtttt, I don’t want to go look for a new job. Honestly, I make a lot of money, and it’s not like this job involves backbreaking labor or inhaling toxic fumes on a regular basis. Plus, I’d feel pretty bad about leaving behind [Sally and John] — they’ve really helped me out and if I leave, things will get even worse for them. Also, there’s lots going on in my personal life and getting a new job would cause even more stress at home.
What should I do?
A Confused Engineer

Okay ACE, let me summarize your letter: I hate my job, but I don’t want to quit, what should I do? It sounds like you want me to talk you into quitting — I can’t make this choice for you. You’re going to have to make it on your own, but here are some things to keep in mind.

Sound about right? Okay, lets break it down.

Let’s start by leaving aside some rationalizations. Leave behind your guilt about earning good money for what you do. (Or, if you’re so inclined, find a positive way to help out people who inhale toxic fumes or subject themselves to backbreaking labor to support themselves and their families.) Income gap may be a growing problem in this country, but that’s a poor reason to stay at a job. Sally and John? Glad to hear you have friends at work. That’s important. But as you say, people are quitting monthly. How long will Sally and John stick around? Friends are important, but you need to leave them out of this decision. I’m pretty sure they’ll still be happy to meet you for lunch once in a while even if you choose to leave.

Now let’s talk about stress. Really, that’s mostly what leads most people to look for a new job, and what holds people back from doing so. It’s undeniable that looking for a new job is stressful. You’re going to be judged. You’re going to get yourself excited about new possibilities, and you’re going to have to make yourself vulnerable to rejection. Indeed that’s stressful, and maybe more acutely stressful than continuing in your current job.

But I have a theory about stress — there are two different kinds of stresses in our lives. I’ve stolen some terms from Robert Pirsig‘s Metaphysics of Quality and characterize them as static stress and dynamic stress. Static stresses are the stresses of our everyday lives. You’re accustomed these — you’ve worked out coping mechanisms and you’re good at burying them to get through your day. But they stick around like a background noise in your life. Static stresses are the things that cause ulcers and heart disease. These are the stresses of your current job. Dynamic stresses are the temporary stresses that come with unexpected or unusual life events and changes. The stress of moving into a new house, or getting married (or divorced). The stress of looking for a new job definitely fits into this category.

Humans are very good an underrating the impact of static stress on our lives. After all, that’s how we cope with them. We shove them into the background, where we can forget about them to the greatest extent possible. But they linger. They impact our sleep, our moods, our health, and our relationships with our loved ones. Ever gotten in a meaningless argument after a stressful day at work? Is there anyone who hasn’t? Static stresses are negative forces in our lives, but we’ve gotten so good at putting them into a corner of our mind that we all tend to minimize the overall impact of static stress on our lives.

Dynamic stresses, on the other hand, are terrifying to think about. They come from the major (and sometimes unexpected) changes in our lives and they loom large in our imagination. And many dynamic stresses come from entirely negative situations: the end of a relationship, a layoff, an accident, or a natural disaster. But some of the changes that generate dynamic stress are from the most meaningful events in our lives: marriage, moving into a new house, graduation. And, yes, looking for a new job. It’s true, you’ll loose nights of sleep wondering if you’ll get a callback. You’ll do research into a new position and get yourself hugely excited about it only to never hear from the hiring manager. Or go in for multiple interviews, only to be told they’ve chosen another candidate. And if you do get lucky enough to find a great opportunity and land an offer, then you’re going to have to go in and meet new people, and prove yourself all over again. I won’t deny that those are enormous stresses, but they’re positive stresses in our lives. They energize us. When large groups of people go through dynamic stress together — say after a natural disaster — it often brings out the very best in us. Communities come together. Why? Because humans are resilient. When changes happen to us, we by our very nature do our very best to come out on top. And yet, it’s natural to fear change, and our imaginations tend to amplify the possible negative outcomes of any change — especially changes created by our own choices..

So keep this in mind when you’re weighing these choices against each other. Maybe the static stresses in your life are not that big — if you’re a positive and happy person, and you’re able to walk away from a stressful day at work and leave it all behind you, then it may not matter. But if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t have written this letter. Maybe you’ve got other reasons to avoid a sudden and large change in your life. Maybe you’re already going through enough dynamic stress — if a loved one is sick, or you’ve just had a child, switching jobs may just be too much. This is why I say I can’t make this choice for you.

But weight your decision criteria fairly. Are you underestimating the sum of the stresses you’re facing daily? It’s useful to try distancing yourself a bit from the emotional pull of this decision. Try pretending it’s not you in this situation. If this was your best friend talking about this, what would you say? What if it was your child? What advice would you give to someone in your situation?

If you do choose to stay, then it’s time for you to start working to change things in your current job and try to make things better. Are people quitting because of their boss? Maybe you should have a direct conversation with your manager about what you see happening. Executives keep changing focus? What do you think the focus should be? Do you have buy in from the team? It’s time to gather your thoughts into a killer argument and talk with the executives — if they’re not seeking out your input, schedule a meeting with them. Also, team morale is down — what have you done to change that? Get everyone out for lunch. Don’t take no for an answer. If meetings are intruding on everyone’s lunches, get sneaky — schedule a 2 hour “brown-bag” meeting for an important topic and then cancel it at the last minute and head out with the team. If you’re going to stick around, you owe it to yourself to make things better. Fake it till you make it really works. Pretend you have the power to change things. Pretend you aren’t afraid of getting fired. Be polite but insistent. I think you’ll be shocked to discover how much positive change a single person — even at the bottom of the corporate ladder — can make.

Whatever you decide to do, you’ve got work ahead of you, and stress. Do your best to make that positive stress.


Book Report: Lean Out

Lean Out Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture is an important and thought-provoking book that probably won’t get all of the attention that it deserves. While I’m not the target audience here (maybe I should be, but that’s a discussion for another time), I did find this to be a useful framework for thinking about some things that I’m pretty happy to have pondered.
The book is not as much of a rebuke of Lean In as the title suggests. It’s more just a collection of essays about the issues faced by women (and black and lgbt women) in technology. The book is (understandably) focused very much on Silicon Valley and Startup culture. As with any collection of essays the quality of the essays vary, as do the tone and message. In fact, that’s probably where this, as a book, most suffers- there isn’t one common agenda that emerges out of these essays.
Ultimately, that’s probably a reflection of where society is at this point in time, and also of the books efforts to be inclusive to many different viewpoints. The stories told in this collection are powerful, honest and sometimes painful to read.
Anyhow, if you work in technology, and care about making work in our field better for everyone, this a good book to read and reflect on. If you’re a leader, then this should absolutely be on your reading list.

Nice to meet you…

Do you take the time to properly introduce yourself to new team members? I’d like to suggest that a simple practice can help set new team members at ease and let them quickly settle into their new jobs and start focusing on the work at hand.

Hopefully by now you should know the importance of creating an environment where your team can form not just professional relationships, but real friendships. As far as whether a leader should try to be friends with their team, there are arguments on both sides. I personally say that the power dynamic is not going to allow you to be close friends with your employees. This shouldn’t stop you from building a relationship of trust, support and openness that is, in many ways very similar to friendship.

I’ve stumbled onto a simple onboarding practice that helps kick-start that relationship. I’ve not met any other manager who does this, and I’ve received positive feedback from every employee I’ve subjected to this exercise. But before I get into it I’ll explain the two main factors that led to my doing this as I onboard employees.

First, an experience as an employee: I’ll change the details to protect the innocent, but the heart of this is a true story. I worked for a manager named (ahem, not his real name, see above) Charlie. In almost a year of working for Charlie, I managed to discern the following details of his personal life: he had served in the Navy, and his son fenced competitively (again, not actually true, but close enough to give you the idea). Yep. That’s all that I had to show for a year of reporting to him. As someone who knows nothing about fencing and has never served in any military branch, this is a remarkably thin bit of information on which I would try, and generally fail, to base a conversation when we were say, in an elevator together. (It would require an altogether different post to discuss the reasons that I let this happen, but for now I’ll sum it up under the category of “mistakes I have learned from”.)

Flash forward a few years, when I found myself inheriting an offshore team of 10 or so employees. I scheduled a trip to meet them in person, but I had one week and a lot to accomplish. I had to quickly get to know the team — well enough so that I could reasonably ask them to work with me on significant changes to the way they worked. In short I needed to show up in a foreign city, earn the trust of 10 people, and move on to solving problems, in less than one week. I knew that this had to start with a one-on-one conversation, where I could introduce myself and ask questions to get to know each member of the team. And I wanted them to know me, not to be in a position where they where trying to think of an interesting question about fencing. To shortcut this process I built a presentation introducing myself and the things that matter to me. Basically a slide show introducing myself, my family, my interests and a bit about my work history, approach etc. This let me get through the “me talking” part all up front, to the entire team, so that during my 1:1s, I could jump right into asking questions to get to know each member of the team during our time together. This in turn meant that by afternoon of day 2 of my visit the entire team could jump into real discussion about how we could work together.

A few weeks later, I found myself getting to know a new employee in my office. As I started to introduce myself and talk about my family, I realized I could use those same slides to show pictures of my family, and I called it up. And then a slide about my favorite books came up, and I answered a question about that, and before I knew it, I had gone through the presentation on a one on one basis. I’ve done it ever since. It’s a bit awkward, but it does actually help keep me focused, and time-boxes what would otherwise be a rambling monologue about myself. Of course that’s not the end of the conversation — it’s just as important for me to try to learn a bit about the person sitting at the other side of the desk, which generally involves some questions as we go, followed by “tell me something about yourself”.

So give it a try, and see if your new hires like it, then let me know in the comments!

Book Report: Humans are Underrated

Humans Are Underrated.thumbAfter one of my colleagues posted this article on what makes teams work, I was inspired to read Geoff Colvin’s latest book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will
The first chapters of this book give Clive Barker a run for the money, as Colvin walks through the many different ways in which the economy is going to transform in short order due to computer automation and robotics. I found myself continually having to put down the book to work my way through the implications of some of this:

  • I’ve thought a lot about how autonomous cars are going to change the economy from a car-buying perspective. A likely shift towards a sharing model for car-ownership would certainly have broad impacts on jobs – from manufacturing to sales to repairs and parts. And the impact to taxi-drivers has been clear to me, but I never considered the impact on delivery vehicles. Truck driving is the number one job among American men, and it’s hard to believe that this job will exist in a few decades.
  • We all know that computers outperform humans at chess, but Colvin runs through other things they have been doing more recently, including reading emotions better than humans, writing articles for publication, and moving into increasingly creative fields like creating recipes for chili and chocolate burritos that were well received at SXSW in 2014.
  • Colvin runs through some terrifying human fallibilities as well, like the impact of lunchtime on a judge granting parole. (Did you that while overall, judges grant 35% of paroles, but that the number jumps to 65% immediately following lunch?). While humans are currently skeptical of computers’ ability to handle tasks involving the freedom of humans, it’s hard to look at statistics like that and not acknowledge that algorithmic judgement would be more consistent.

After a few chapters of doom and gloom, Colvin makes his case that the future will involve a shift where economic rewards are centered on deeply human traits – most especially the ability to empathize, rather than the current reward structure towards analytic thought. Although he sometimes undermines his own arguments, he continues to weave together deeply interesting facts.
Colvin makes a strong case for colocated teams in the section on the square of the distance rule. While I’ve personally seen highly effective remote team-members who are able to form deep ties to a mostly colocated team, I found Colvin’s evidence here quite though provoking.
The best measure that we currently have for human empathy, the Reading the Mind Between the Eyes test is something that Colvin talks about quite a bit, as is Collective Intelligence. If you’re responsible for hiring a collaborative team, this book is almost certain to change the way you think about hiring.
In fact, one of the things Colvin probably underplays is the following:

It has become a cliché to say that bringing women into a corporate team, for example, improves the group’s thinking because it introduces a wider variety of thoughts and experiences. That assumes the team was mostly men, and greater diversity improves performance. But the finding of this research is exactly the opposite. It shows that the more women in a group, the smarter it is, plain and simple. The smartest groups in the research had zero gender diversity; they were all women. If the diversity argument held, then replacing a woman with a man would make the group smarter. But it didn’t. On average, it made the group dumber.

Why isn’t this a part of the conversation? It is one of the most perspective-changing things I’ve ever read, and is worth the investment in the book right there.
So yeah, you should probably read this book.

Book Report: The Rare Find

The Rare Find.thumbThis book is probably primarily useful to those who are either (a) in charge of a large-scale search, or (b) in charge of a very high-end search for a specific role such as a C-suite executive. However, there are plenty of small nuggets that I found thought provoking for designing interview processes as a hiring manager.
The book is short and fairly enjoyable for a book about hiring – I found many of his specific stories, especially the description of the selection process for Army Special Forces, surprisingly entertaining.
Anders’ attempts to make things personal can occasionally feel a bit like a politician’s campaign speech. Like this bit:

TFA [Teach For America] wanted people like Emily Lewis-Lamonica. I met her in the summer of 2009, after she had finished two years of TFA service as an eighth-grade history teacher…

This book is strongly focused on identifying rare talent, while almost entirely ignoring enticing them or retaining them. This is somewhat forgivable, given the title of the book. This next segment is one of the rare exceptions where Anders digs in a bit further:

For bosses like John Cameron, it’s not enough to discover talent that shouts. That much is easy. The great challenges come later, once such people are on the payroll. That is when everything hinges on an ability to make the most of such people’s wide-ranging ambitions and restless spirits. If top performers don’t feel tied into the organization that hires them, all their marvelous potential may be useless. Their careers may be marked by quarrels, betrayals, squandered opportunities, and repeated job-hopping in moments of anger.
In extreme cases, organizations decide it isn’t worth accommodating such high-intensity turmoil. No matter how brightly a star might shine before a hiring decision is made, everything can blow up once a contract is signed. If events don’t play out as planned, talent that shouts can turn impatient, selfish, or frustrated. After too many such failures, some leaders retreat. They would rather surround themselves with amiable plodders than tangle again with the unruly side of talent.
Fortunately, there’s a way around this agony. Top teaching hospitals like Hopkins are a fine place to look for clues. So are elite military units. These organizations don’t flinch at filling their ranks with ambitious personalities. That’s because they know how to get everyone pulling together toward shared goals, rather than ending up with a quarrelsome bunch of prima donnas. Step into the corporate world, and similar triumphs exist as well. None of these organizations equates talent and treachery. Instead, they are the world’s best snake charmers, if you will, figuring out how to get the most out of high achievers without being led astray.

My biggest complaint about the book is how little it focused on diversity in hiring. Aside from a few mentions, such as a Lehman Brother’s strategy to hire women as analysts rather than salespeople, diversity as a hiring goal is quite absent. When it does appear, it feels like it’s exploitative, when he could just as easily focus on the value that a diverse team offers.
On balance, the book is worth reading, although I think it falls a bit short of its promise.

Book Report: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.thumbI had the privilege of working with a very talented coder who swore that he learned everything he needed to know about coding from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that he re-read it regularly, making new discoveries each time. So after more than 20 years since I last read this, I decided to give it another go.
There is certainly quite a bit in this book that resonates with much more recent research on work and motivation. While I don’t think I can capture it all, I’ll try to cover a bit of what stood out to me.
Pirsig does a great job of capturing the essence of what has recently been called “Flow” in this bit:

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. That was what it was about that wall in Korea. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality.

And his section on what he calls “gumption” resonates strongly with the recent research on “grit” as a determinant of success. Interestingly, Pirsig goes on for quite a bit about how to acquire and hang on to gumption, which is a focus for many modern educators. Here’s his description of gumption:

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Here’s a fascinating bit about the pleasure of doing a job well, even if it’s not a perfect job:

Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with — and they are all, sooner or later, dull — and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going.

Finally, a bit about how doing work well ultimately impacts yourself:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

It seems clear to me that in many ways, Pirsig was ahead of his times. Or maybe he’s influenced the current generation of research in lots of interesting ways. Any way you slice it, this book is worth a careful read, maybe even regularly.

Book Report: The Best Place to Work

The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman, PhD is probably one of the best management guides I’ve read. Why? Because it offers research-backed(!), carefully end-noted, practical advice for how to improve the workplace. All of this while being a fairly enjoyable read – the chapters start with an illustrative example, then move on to recent research, ending with a list of practical suggestions for both managers and “emerging leaders”. While the advice of the book would be best executed by a company owner or high-level executive, there’s still plenty of useful insight for those of us down in the trenches.
one warning: One of those illustrative examples includes a very vivid (although non-“graphic”) and unexpectedly intense description of a school shooting. This leads to a discussion about what we can learn about communication from hostage negotiators, if you’re wondering (and I’m sure you were).
Here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which talks about Sara Blakely, founder of spanx, and the importance of encouraging failure:

Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?”
When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk-taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After twelve years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it, they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just 5 percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason, as we’ll soon discover, is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.