Failure: Can You Pivot?

Last Spring, I was presenting at a breakout session at the Canadian Association of Principals Conference at Whistler.  One of the things that I try to do with my presentations is to make them as interactive as possible, regardless of the size of the group.  Whether it is through co-creating a ‘getting to know each other’ Google presentation, crowd-sourcing with the group using a collaborative document, using literacy strategies have participants engage with each other after watching short video clips, or simply having them do the infamous Fenway Five (you have to come to one of my sessions if you want to know more about that one), my goal is to have educators experience and use tools they can immediately take home to their own learning situation.  And for my colleagues at Whistler, I was primed, and ready to go.

Participants filed in.  They sat down, pulled out devices, opened up laptops, and began merrily creating their own individual slides on our online, shared presentation for the day.  They were adding pictures of themselves from Google, playing with fonts, and laughing at what others had put up.  I gave the one-minute warning to let people know that we were about to begin, and then….it happened.

Yes, the only room in the entire conference that suddenly ‘black boxed’ (meaning no one’s wifi or 4G on any device worked, including phones) was mine.  Three minutes before the presentation started, everything was great.  30 seconds after, the whole place crashed.  Tech people from the hotel raced in and surrounded my laptop like paramedics trying to give CPR to an unconscious heart attack victim. They tried one network, and another, then their own networks on their phones.  And then they looked at me with sadness in their eyes, slowly looked down at the floor, and shook their heads.  The CPR didn’t work, and the heart attack victim…you guessed it:  it was me, standing in front of 80 people with one hour and twenty-two minutes left in my allotted time to present on how to be an engaging administrator using online tools.


Sitting in the front row was educational luminary, Simon Breakspear.  Much to my chagrin, he had a huge smile on his face as he shouted one word for all to hear.


He was right.  The horse was dead–stop beating it and take a different tack.  Get nimble.  Get agile.  And most of all, get going, because there are 80 people here waiting for you to engage them.

So, I quickly tried to salvage the pieces of the presentation that I could: I grabbed some screenshots that I had taken from past presentations that captured the essence of the online interactive bits, and I used activities that I had done at faculty meetings in the past to model things that administrators could do if they wanted something low-tech, but still required high participation.  In the end, the presentation was not exactly an oil painting, but the gracious participants told me that they got a number of things they could use in their own faculty meetings.  Not a total loss.

I won’t lie, I was pretty frustrated afterward.  Friends who were presenting at the same time in the two rooms adjacent to me were shocked–their wifi was perfect!  I was irritated with the wifi, and irritated even more with myself that I hadn’t made my presentation ‘wifi proof’ (how many of us still feel we have to do this?).  So, I went back to my room and made a series of changes to my presentation to capture the same points, but in a way that wasn’t so ‘wifi dependent’.  And as I was tidying it up and bouncing the alterations off of a colleague who was with me, he said something about my new iteration:

“It’s better. Way better.”

I presented two more times, and he was right, the sessions were better!  (Of course at this point, the hotel had now given me my own dedicated, lightning fast and bulletproof wifi channel for my presentation, which I ended up using about one-third as much as I would have on the first day).  The feedback that I collected from the participants was positive–they had gotten five or six practical strategies that they could immediately use with their own schools and faculties.  Mission accomplished.  My ‘pivot’ was successful.

In my work around innovation, I have become fascinated with how people or organizations change when things don’t go exactly as planned, or how they pivot when they have an ‘epic failure’.   I believe that we don’t share enough stories like this.  I think we often feel like admitting our mistakes somehow makes us appear weak or incompetent.  Yet what I am finding right now is I have become an “iteration junkie”:  I am not nearly as interested in failure (or success, for that matter) as I am to hear about how someone overcame a challenge, embraced a parameter, or gathered and used feedback to make their product or service better.

In creating the conditions for innovation, it is vital that leaders are open and honest about some of their epic fails.  First and foremost, on an emotional level, I have found that as time passes, most of our epic fails turn into raucous stories at the pub or punch lines at retirement dinners.  More importantly, from a leadership perspective, when leaders can not only talk about these failures, but they can show how they and their organization changed as a result of what they have learned, those failures are not failures at all, they become examples of innovation through iteration.

I saw a poster once that said “I don’t mind learning from my mistakes, I just don’t want to earn a Ph.D.”, and I agree, I don’t want to be so reckless that ‘epic failure’ becomes the norm. But being able to take some of those ‘epic fails’ and pivot as a result is a way that we can truly lead innovation in our classrooms and our schools.

Can you pivot?

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