Practicing Failure: Lessons from Michael Jordan & Olympic Athletes on Failure & Success

In early 2007 I was planning to launch my first Failure Forum.  The forums were a series of presentations (modeled after TED talks) with an ensuing discussion that were meant to examine internal innovation projects that had been shut down.  We sought to understand what had been accomplished with the project, what had we learned from it, and what would we do differently next time.  The truth was that many of the innovation projects were modeled after previous work.

At the time I was looking for some inspiration to help me communicate to the audience why I thought admitting to and learning from our failures was so important.  One of the pieces that I ended up choosing to share was a 2006 Nike commercial with Michael Jordan.  The commercial opens with a scene of Michael getting out of his limo and walking into the arena.  While walking through the tunnel he is shaking hands and giving nods to the security and maintenance staff.  The voiceover begins with him recognizing that he has missed over 9000 shots in his career, loosing almost 300 games, and the 26 times he had been trusted to take the game winning shot… and missed.  The commercial ends with Michael walking through doors into the “Players Entrance” and finishes with his insight, “I have failed over, and over, and over again in my life… and that is why I succeed.”

As I had watched some of the failures from the USA men’s gymnastics team this week I was reminded of this commercial.  What constitutes success… a perfect routine at the most opportune time?  As I watched the footage of Aly Raisman warming up for her floor exercise during the team competition they showed a couple of big misses with her routine and they were questioning her readiness to perform a flawless routine.  This had me thinking.  She had obviously done that routine flawlessly hundreds, if not thousands, of times previously.  This wasn’t a question of whether she was capable of doing the routine; this was a question of if this one time was going to be one of her flawless routines.  I wondered if her mistakes might have been on purpose.  Was she practicing failure in front of an audience?  Making errors during warm up practice seems like exactly the right time to get the “failures” out of the way?

Extending this idea back to Jordan, I would suggest that missing the game winning shot 26 times was just him practicing for the 25 times that he successfully made the game winning shot!  One quick note, a 49% (25/51) accuracy rate is incredibly high for a shot in the last few seconds of an NBA game.  But so what?  This might be some interesting idea on sports psychology but what do I do with it?

I would suggest that we need to begin being more on purpose with practicing failure in our work organizations and in our personal lives.

  • Do we have the leaders who have withstood enough game ending shots or do we only reward the cautious and careful?
  • Do we have a broad enough portfolio of innovation initiatives with varying degrees of risk?  Knowing that some will fail.
  • Do we hire employees who have demonstrated risk taking, failure, and recovery in their lives?

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