Failure – A Facilitated Activity

Kylie Quetell Change Management, Communication, Employee Development, Learning and Development

I was recently asked to give a presentation to a group of 100 people about success after failure. It was for an all day event, and I was asked to speak for 30 minutes. The objective was to get folks inspired to rise up after their own moments of failure. I realized that speaking about success after failure for 30 minutes in an effort to get them to overcome something a month later would likely, itself, be a failure. And so, I created a presentation that involved a lot of interaction and little bit of action. It was very easy to prep, facilitate, and execute. I’d like to share with all of you, because I received awesome feedback for something so simple. I think this activity about failure would be an awesome team building or group activity. 

Note – I chose the activity of tying a Bowline Knot because I knew that my audience would not know how to do it. If you work for the Boy Scouts, you may want to pick a different challenge. Remember, the goal is for them to fail at a very simple activity.

Failure – A Facilitated Activity

You will need 2 things at minimum: 

  • A presentation with 8 slides
    • An Intro
    • A picture of a bowline knot
    • The word “failure”
    • A set of rudimentary directions on how to tie a bowline knot
    • The word “failure”
    • A set of details directions on how to tie a bowline knot
    • The word “success”
    • A closing slide
  • A piece of rope or string 10-12 inches long for each participant

Here is how it worked. 

I gave each participant a piece of string and asked them to tie a bowline knot.  I gave no other instructions. Just sat their with my arms behind my back smirking like a jerk. Many had never heard of it. They grumbled and whined, and it was glorious. The more animated you can get them, the better. Remember, this is a facilitated activity, not a lecture. Watch the group and note their reactions. Frustration, failure, giving up, anger, laughter, etc. 

Ask them to stop and flip to the “Failure” slide. Ask them how they did. 2/3 of them will fail. Ask for a show of hands of who gave up, got angry, etc. Make them recognize their reaction to the task. You should be smiling now, and making them not hate you. You want them to open up and feel safe. Encourage their reactions. Relate and tell them it took you an hour to learn. Laugh with them at the ridiculousness of this simple task.

Now it’s discussion time. You can ask probing questions like, “When you are given a challenge at work that you have no idea how to do, how many of us sometimes want to give up? Why?” “Was it frustrating that the challenge I gave you had no purpose? Why?” You want to get them talking and get them to see the link between their reaction to the knot and their reactions to challenging work. It’s amazing how frustrating a simple knot can make people; imagine how frustrating it can be for larger tasks in the office. 

If you are giving this presentation to leaders, make them understand how the tasks they assign may be frustrating to their employees. For example, “If you were frustrated tying a knot, Dave, imagine how your team feels when you ask them to do stupid $hit.” 

Before you switch to the next slide with better (but still rudimentary directions) tell them the importance of a Bowline Knot. It is considered to be one of, if not the, most important knot to learn. This knot could save your life. It could allow you to save the lives of others including your own family. It creates a loop that will not slip. You could pull someone from icy water or lower someone from a burning building. Really sell it.

Give them time, then flip to the failure slide. At this point, 2/3 of them will be successful, maybe even more. Don’t let them all be successful. If you see them getting close, change the slide and make them get pissed. It’s good to get frustrated in this activity. That’s the whole point.

Discussion time. Ask them questions like, “Why was it helpful to know how valuable it was to learn the knot?” “How many of you found the simple directions to be helpful?” Now tie it all back to work. “Are you ever given instruction without knowing the value? Since it helped you tie the knot, how will you ask for clarity in the future?” “Where can you find simple instruction on how to complete activities?” 

Again, if you are working with leaders, help them understand how they may give better instructions or create value in the future. “What is a better way to ask people to do something, Dave, besides just barking orders?” 

Last time for knot tying. This time give them the slide with better instructions and tell them that they can help their friends. Get them up and walking and helping each other. 

Once the majority of the group has tied the knot, it’s time for your last discussion. “For those of you helping others, how did it feel to see them find success? Imagine if we did this at the office.” “For those of you that got help, who can you ask at the office for help on some of your other tasks you are challenged with?” “How many of you still failed? Is it safe to say that maybe you just aren’t the best at tying knots, and that maybe someone else is better at that particular skill?” There is a lot of value here. 

With a group of leaders, ask them how they can provide better resources, talent development, mentorship, open door policies, etc. Ideally, Dave is really getting point now so you can leave him alone and let him rebuild his ego. 

As for the conclusion, tie it all together (pun intended). Talk to them about success and failure, and the need to try multiple times, and getting better instructions, and learning the purpose, and asking for help, and helping others, and also realizing the value of our own personal skills and limitations.

Good luck with this activity. It’s a simple yet effective one. I’d love to hear how it went!