Maybe this has been you at some point:

The mountain of tasks in front of you looks indomitable… You see the sheer size of the project in front of you, you step back, and you still can’t seem to see your way to the boundaries of the task at hand. You wonder how you can ever learn the laundry list of new libraries and tools. That backlog of tasks stares back. Delivery pressures loom. The weight of carrying your team presses down on you.

You wonder if you can ever reach your goals…  You begin to realize that you have no idea what the finish line looks like. Can you develop that solution using tools you already have? How in the world will you find the time to learn the new tech required to pull this thing off? You wonder these things…

And you don’t even recognize the poisoning, limiting fear of failure as it seeps into your mind…

You realize that you may be in over your head… Your team is counting on your leadership. As a developer, you feel as if you are a total impostor.

Paralysis sets in…  Which way to go? What if I blow it this time? What if we slip the ship date – again? Will I be able to see my kids this week? How in the world can we get this done?

So you sell out… There’s definitely a right way to do this, but the way I/we have done it before will work well enough.  We could meet the deadlines for our deliverables. I could grow as a developer, but not right now.

And then you truly fail… Your software kind-of works, but doesn’t meet your product owner’s expectations. You ship, but your iPhone app retention rate is abysmal. You could have learned something new, but instead you chose to use that old tech that you already know and you slipped that much further behind the curve. Your company could have delivered something truly unique, but you warmed up last year’s tech, your customers rejected it, and you lost.

lack of success.
“an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
synonyms: lack of success, nonfulfillment, defeat, collapse, foundering
the omission of expected or required action.
“their failure to comply with the basic rules”

There was a time when I was terrified of failure.  But then I found myself in an environment where failure was not considered the end, but rather, was considered one more step towards success. And not just any success, ultimate success.  There is a difference between the two.

You or your team can have successes, but for you to be ultimately successful, you have to grow.  You have to build success on success so that you can continue to grow, continue to stay apprised of the latest technologies, and continue to grow so that you can outpace your competitors.  You have to change your mind about how you play the game; you have to play to actually win, not to play just so that you don’t lose.

You see, most companies, teams, and people let the fear of failure cause them to play safely, just enough that they don’t lose – this time.  But that ultimately leads to losing anyway.  The pattern goes something like this:

If you play just enough not to lose…
You will be afraid to fail.
If you avoid failure…
You will avoid learning.
If you avoid learning…
You won’t grow.
If you don’t grow…
Your competition will outpace you and you will eventually lose anyway.

So how do you help your team overcome the fear of failure?

  1. Play to win – Don’t be satisfied with getting through the next day or the next project.  Don’t write code just to satisfy the minimum requirements.  Go beyond.  Reach.  Extend yourself and your team beyond your competitors.  Don’t let them outpace you.  Win.
  2. Foster an environment of learning  – As a leader, you must assure your team that you are interested in their personal growth.  As a team member, you have to look for ways to absorb something new with every passing project.  Let your failures become learning moments, too.  Every failure is just one more step towards victory.
  3. Complacency is the enemy – The problem with achieving the mountaintop is that you can’t stay there forever.  There is always another hill to climb.  Stop and enjoy the view as you encounter your successes, but don’t get comfortable.  Seek out the next hill.  Find the next waypoint and get your team there.  Keep moving the ball forward.

We’ve all heard the story of Edison and his reply to a reporter when he was asked how it felt to have failed 1000 times in constructing the first commercially viable electric light bulb.  In his reply, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps,” Edison demonstrated the spirit that we and our teams should have.  So, go forth, embrace your failures, play to win, learn, and ever combat the loathsome enemy that is complacency.  You never know where your 1000 steps may lead you.