• Jim Foran

The ‘Ugly Shot Contest’ – freedom to fail can be your secret weapon

To reach success sooner, today’s leaders must help their teams fail fast, fail often, and fail forward.

Paralyzed by the fear of failure


Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege of coaching several of my sons’ hockey teams in our local recreational league. Without fail, every season begins the same. Our kids take the ice, work their butts off, but generate inconsistent results. Games end 0-0.


If you coach basketball, soccer or any other youth team sport, this may be familiar to you: the poor results are not through lack of trying nor of talent...it’s a lack of shooting on goal! The kids are so afraid of not scoring, it’s easier not to shoot at all. Some might argue this is some new youth phenomenon, I suspect it’s just human nature.


...playing to "not lose" is not the same as playing to "win".

For most of us, our business lives are spent in that “in-between” place…somewhere less than success but better than failure. Paralyzed by a fear of failure, businesses choose to become ossified corporate zombies. What’s clearer now than ever…playing to “not lose” is not the same as playing to win.

Experimentation - building the confidence to fail


Modern society is fascinated with winning. Successes are celebrated. An often-overlooked fact is that today’s most admired companies share one valuable thing in common: a wholehearted embrace of failure.


Google, Apple, Facebook, AirBnB and many others have long lists of products that met an untimely end. These ‘failures’ are not looked at as a graveyard but rather a badge of honour. The experience of trying and failing lead to new ideas that eventually find a toe hold.


...today's most admired companies share one valuable thing in common: a wholehearted embrace of failure.

In a relatively recent business phenomenon, Lean Startup author Eric Ries gives us a glimpse into the process of iterative A-B tests where experiments are automated and measured. Every day, even a small company can perform hundreds of tiny experiments without fear of failure. By adopting practices that allow you to offer slightly different experiences to users, you can measure and improve your offering.


Take for instance Netflix. A few years ago, I attended a workshop with one of Netflix’ operations leaders, where he explained that something as simple as the poster art for each video asset can have a tremendous effect on how many people choose to watch it. Rather than getting paralyzed by this decision for each of thousands of titles, Netflix ran experiments. Should the next season of Ozark have one person in the poster image? Two people? Dark colours? The simple answer: try them all and measure the results. They automate experiments as part of their cultural fabric.


"Failure" actually has nothing to do with it if you are in an experimental mindset.

After literally millions of experiments, Netflix has mastered their understanding in the pursuit of success. “Failure” actually has nothing to do with it if you are in an experimental mindset. Developing such a corporate mindset takes commitment and courage.


As children, we are incredibly imaginative and creative. When playing with wooden blocks, we weren’t afraid of finding out how tall a tower could be built before it toppled.Or how big a sandcastle might be before the tide sweeps it away. We are pre-wired to enjoy the value of experimental play as a learning tool.As adults, we’ve somehow lost much of this joyfulness.Leaders must help their teams regain it!What I believe Silicon Valley culture does extraordinarily well is rebuild this lost muscle memory through continuous experimentation, learning and creativity.


‘Ugly Shot Contest’ – hack your culture to celebrate experimentation


So back to the youth hockey team. How did the coaching staff improve team performance? By hacking the game.


Prior to an important game, we created a little contest…the Ugly Shot Contest. You see, we could have said the kid who shoots the most wins a reward, but that feels unattainable to most players. We needed team effort. So instead, we took the anxiety out of the game and levelled the playing field by celebrating the ugliest shots: you know the ones, where the kid trips while shooting, or accidentally scores while passing. Doesn’t matter, because every kid on the team believed in the concept that he or she could produce an ugly shot that would be celebrated!


...the rules of play allow every member to contribute, and where even the clumsiest attempts can be sources of progress, inspiration and learning.

Our key thought was let’s create a game within a game where the rules of play allow every member to contribute, and where even the clumsiest attempts can be sources of progress, inspiration and learning. The results were remarkable. The kids went from 6 shots per game to over 30, and of course more than a few went in. A five-fold increase in productivity. Within a few games, we no longer needed the contest anymore…the kids had gained the confidence to try.


Developing your team’s confidence to innovate


Let’s wrap up with how might we apply this to our business lives? There is a common saying in Design Thinking circles, “We need to fail early to succeed sooner”.


Today's business leaders must model and support their teams to overcome the traditional rules of the game that stand in the way of innovation success.



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