Failure IS an Option: Building High-Performance Teams


Building high-performance teams takes time. I spent 17 years in the U.S. Air Force as a trainer pilot and fighter pilot. As I gained more experience as an instructor I would find myself frequently paired up with the weaker students in our training program to ensure they had the best instruction. Sometimes these students were performing so poorly that one more unsatisfactory flight with me might be the last time they fly in the Air Force.

I want to give you an idea how devastating it would be for the student to fail out of the flying training program. These young men and women had spent their entire lives dreaming of flying supersonic aircraft. They’ve had posters of F-15s and F-16s on their walls since they were 4-years-old, and today those dreams may come to an end. Too many mistakes in the air would mean their flying career was over as quickly as it started.

As I stared across the table at the understandably very anxious student before their flight briefing, I would start off the conversation the same way each time:

“You will not fly a perfect mission today.”

I would pause for effect and then continue. “I will not fly a perfect mission today. As a matter of fact, in more than 2500 missions I have never had a perfect flight. I am not assessing you on your ability to fly perfectly – I am assessing you on your ability to adapt and react when the inevitable mistake occurs. You see, I don’t expect you to be perfect, but I do expect you to be impeccable. There is a difference.”

The Flawless Execution Model Allows for Failures

As leaders, we must give our teams permission to fail. In his landmark book “The Lean Startup”, Eric Ries advocates for empowering your team to fail in small ways often so that they can learn how to find the right path to big success. Afterburner’s Flawless Execution methodology teaches the same thing. It is all about making as many trips around the Plan-Brief-Execute-Debrief cycle as possible, each time learning how to pivot and adapt to avoid repeating mistakes or to leverage best practices.

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High performing teams don’t always win. They just never fail the same way twice. While in pursuit of inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Today, no one talks about those 10,000 failures, and your team’s failures will be a distant memory if they iteratively improve after each mistake.

By giving the student pilots under my tutelage the option to fail, I would give them their greatest chance at success. Sometimes the mistakes still piled up and the student would subsequently be removed from flight training. That’s fine – enduring high G-forces miles above the ground moving faster than the speed of sound is not for everybody. You need to know in flight and in business when to throw in the towel and make a massive shift to your strategic direction. But my students always understood that if they could recover from their mistakes there would be a good chance they would pass the mission and go on to see their dreams come true.

Give your organization the option to fail. Empower your teams to fail early and fail often when the stakes are small, so that they can win big when it matters. If you can do that, you’ll be well on your way to building a high performance team.