You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

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In the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death it is not only worth reflecting on what a great player he was, but also how he learned to embrace failure as a pre-requisite to success.

He was remarkable for his successes, his points tallies, his MVPs awards and a host of other reasons. But he also holds the National Basketball Record for the most failures. Kobe Bryant failed 14,481 times on his way to glory. He failed more times than anyone else.

And he’s not alone. All the best athletes fail more often that they succeed. An excellent baseball player will bat 0.333, which means he succeeds one time in three (and fails two times in three). A footballer will miss more often than she scores; and the best sales people will often have conversion rates of less than 50%. They fail more often than not.

Every time Kobe Bryant failed, and remember there were 14,481 of them, he embraced that failure as the price of success. The two are yin and yang.

If you are not failing, you are not really succeeding either – just operating at the risk-free mediocre average.

In our professional lives, most of us are told “failure is not an option”, or “this needs to happen”. But the best innovation, and the best learning, happens in the liminal zone: where boundaries are pushed and breakthroughs made … or sometimes not.

A lot of tech companies know this. I used to work at one which had a $1m a day R&D budget for new technologies, products, etc. Because we were pushing the boundaries of what was possible, sometimes we had a breakthrough and found success. A lot of the time we didn’t. I can’t claim that we failed 14,481 times but we did know that each failure meant that we were getting closer to success. Or to paraphrase Thomas Edison, “I have not failed, I have just found 14,481 ways it doesn’t work.”

Are we so afraid of failure that it means we don’t want to take risks? In psychology and economics, there is an idea called “loss aversion theory”. This means that people prefer to avoid losses rather than achieve the equivalent gain. We are so afraid of missing that we don’t take the shot.

But to quote the Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Not taking the shot means you won’t fail but you won’t succeed either.

But what if there was a way to reduce the cost of failure so that the reward of success far outweighs the risk of loss? That is the principle behind simulations and playing games to advance learning and development. When you play a game such as MonopolyTM or Corporate Snakes and Career LaddersTM you get to try new ideas, new shots, new approaches and if they don’t work … well you have only failed in the simulated world of the game. Try again next time. And again. And again. In short, get on the practice court and shoot some hoops the day before the big game.

We had a chance to try this concept out for real at a recently simplycommunicate Session: Communicate for Performance. After an insightful talk from Katharina Auer, we divided up into teams to play Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders in the virtual world of fictional company Globocorp. Teams had to navigate a series of challenges – sometimes succeeding and sometimes not – while reflecting on their own behaviour and learning new skills they can apply in the real world. The idea was to give members of the Simply Network a chance to learn new skills, perspectives, and approaches – and then try then out on the ‘practice court’ of a workshop.

Playing the game gives you a chance to fail when the stakes are low. It’s like shooting some hoops on the practice court. When you miss, this no real cost. When you go bankrupt in MonopolyTM there are no real-world consequences. If your team in Corporate Snakes and Career LaddersTM makes a series of poor choices, you might ‘fail’ in the game. But we’d rather you to fail in the classroom and not the boardroom.

Or as one participant, Tara Rehl, from Rehl Consulting put it,

“Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders was both highly informative and fun. With the risk of failure removed, you could consider the real-life business scenarios with greater objectivity and insight, knowing that the decisions you made were stress- and consequence-free. By the end of the game there really were no ‘losers’. We all learned from each other and collectively came away with a stronger understanding of the impact of our actions and how, through practice, you can ascend to Strategic Advisor and true Business Partner. I for one am glad to have had the opportunity to take many a practice shot that day.”

And when you are confident you can get it right in the real world, having played the game, taken many practice shots, or wherever … then go for it.

That’s what Kobe did. That’s his legacy.

If you would like more information on running a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshop for your team, or at your next event, please get in touch. Stephen Welch +44 7884 110680 or stephen@archetypical.org.

Guest Post by Stephen Welch, Director, Archetypical.