Contributed by Rachel Sachs Steele, MEd
COO and Vice President of Business Development.
Originally posted November 2013.
I love Halloween. For one day every year, I get to try something new, look totally silly, celebrate fear and play with possibilities, all without the usual external or internal constraints. Can you imagine what life would be like if we had that freedom all the time?
Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to take risks without fear? If we had the opportunity to look at what we are doing, evaluate our actions openly and try new ideas until we find the best outcome? And how about having a whole community of people taking risks, embracing crazy ideas and experimenting with new approaches together?
Guess what? No trick here — this “imaginary” world exists.
While wearing sparkly wings and a silly hat this year with my 3-and-a-half-year-old niece, I noticed many parallels between Halloween and collaborative improvement work. Being part of an improvement effort is a humbling experience. We walk out into the world knowing we’re going to look silly, but trust we won’t be judged — because others will look silly too. And then there is the scary stuff: when we push ourselves and others to improve, we expose errors and inefficiencies, identify root causes, and test new ways of operating.
And guess what happens when we test new ideas? We are going to fail. That’s how we learn.
One may argue that Halloween is a low-cost game, but when taking risks in a professional setting, mistakes are not typically encouraged and change can be difficult. And, as if exposing ourselves to failure isn’t scary enough, when we embrace the idea of trying and failing for the sake of improvement, we must also confront the fears and limitations of the larger systems in which we work. Let’s not forget that improvement will prove, without a doubt, that we don’t know everything and — yikes — we may need to let go of something we once thought essential to make room for the new and better.
These are scary concepts for many of us, but the beauty of improvement work is that we get to encourage and celebrate “failure” as an important part of learning. Improvement work requires us to embrace our fears and understand that fears represent risks and risks represent opportunity. And because we do improvement work in collaborative environments with others who are also trying, risking and stumbling, we’re not alone. Over and over again in NICHQ’s work, we see amazing examples of project teams taking risks that result in tremendous leaps forward.
Sure, confronting failure is daunting, but it’s also exhilarating to see opportunities and find better ways of doing things. It’s our obligation as leaders and as people to find and release things that no longer get us the results we are seeking and make way for better. But let’s face it, things are going to change regardless of our own level of comfort and no matter how hard we try, we won’t ever be perfect, can’t predict the future and can’t know what we don’t know. So why not have some fun with it? Join us in improvement work: jump in, try something outside the norm, and experience, in a way, the freedom of Halloween anytime. What we learn in the failing can surprise us — and ultimately pave the way to meaningful and lasting improvements.