Product Leader, Speaker, Advisor, Writer
I was in the middle of doing a pilates class over Zoom when I noticed a big spider on the ceiling. I pointed it out to my kids who were in the room with me, but knowing that none of us could reach it, I dismissed it and went back to struggling through “the hundreds”. Around me, the kids also resumed their activity... or so I thought.
A few minutes later, my five year old emerged with his solution to get the spider. It was a foam roller, held vertically, with a tissue placed on top. The foam roller would give him height to reach the ceiling, and the tissue would get the spider.
I had a split second to decide how to react. I could see some obvious issues with the design. Should I point out what was wrong right away? Or should I just let him try it and find out for himself? This is the very same dilemma that we face everyday as parents, or as managers. Do you knowingly let your team fail?
Learning how to fail is an essential skill. When you encounter failure, you need to learn how to accept and move past the disappointment, figure out what you took away from the failure, and motivate yourself to try again. Since we all inevitably face challenges throughout our career and life, we have to learn how to fail well if we want to be successful.
I realized that this was a perfect situation for me to let my son fail because the stakes were low. If his device didn’t work and the spider got away, then no big deal. There would just be one more of many spiders living in our house. So, I encouraged him to try it out.
The instant he lifted the foam roller up, the tissue blew off of it. He could see that he needed to secure the tissue, rather than just lay it on top. He brainstormed on how he could best secure the tissue and came up with ideas of using tape or a rubber band. Since we had a large rubber band handy, we added that to the device and tested it again. He lifted the foam roller and the tissue stayed fixed to the top! We’d passed our first success metric.
Next, we knew we had one shot at the spider before it would be alerted and run away, so we had to make sure that we could reach the ceiling with the device. In a different part of the room, he tried standing on the couch and lifting his device. It left a two foot gap between the top of the device and the ceiling. He looked for something taller to stand on and brought out our step stool. Now, the gap was down to less than a foot. He still couldn’t reach the ceiling but it was pretty close. We asked ourselves: could we climb higher, or make our device a little longer?
We turned to our recycling bin for inspiration and found an empty tissue box. We reconfigured the device so that the tissue box was taped to the end of the foam roller, and then secured the tissue to the top of the tissue box with the rubber band. He climbed up on the step stool once again and, finally, he confirmed that he could reach the ceiling. We’d passed our second success metric.
After cycling through three designs and five tests, he was ready to take aim. He got it!!!
Throughout the process, I put on my coaching hat and did my best to guide my five year old and help him generate ideas, but let him make decisions and try things out. Even though his initial solution was a failure, he didn’t let it defeat him. Instead, he was excited and engaged to problem solve together. He was ultimately successful because he practiced rapid prototyping, testing, and iterating.
Unfortunately, getting the spider had left a bit of a mark on the ceiling, so it was back to the drawing board to invent something else to clean it. After the success of his first solution, I had no doubt that my junior inventor could come up with something. It might not be in the first shot, but I knew we’d get there.
Also published on LinkedIn.
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