Space for failure

Mar 31, 2024

We must seek out the rare opportunities for safe failure and make the most of them to help our employees reach their full potential.

Parenthood, much like a career, is a lifelong learning experience. As a project manager, I see similarities between the lessons my kids teach me and the lessons to be learned in our industry. The latest lesson came when I took my 3-year-old son skiing for the first time over the holidays.

Internally, the stakes were high for me. I really wanted my son to enjoy his time on the slopes and I wanted him to succeed. While it would have been OK if he did not enjoy skiing, I would do my very best to give him the opportunity to succeed and have a good time. Following a morning of him taking lessons, I took him to lunch. Afterward, we would hit the “magic carpet” to see what he had learned.

I presumed I would stand with him, walk down the slopes, and generally just be there to ensure he did not fall. Much to my surprise, when I tried getting on the magic carpet with him, he pointed to the base of the slope and told me to wait at the bottom for him.

For a couple of seconds, I waited, and he firmly repeated himself. Reluctantly, I respected his wishes and nervously waited at the bottom – and he did fantastic. The second time around, he crossed his ski tips and fell. I rushed over to help him up and, again, he demanded I go back to the bottom. The next time, he almost did the same thing but ended up catching himself. This time I was able to laugh about it, proud of my son’s rapid progression on the slopes. For the next couple of hours, he skied on his own while I watched. He enjoyed it so much that he skied until his little legs got so tired, he could hardly walk – let alone keep on skiing.

In our day jobs, the ability to let go and give someone the space to stumble – and more importantly recover – can be very difficult. Many admired managers I have worked with and others who I have observed from afar, can struggle with letting their employees fail. They want to keep their employees happy, and this can impede their employees’ growth. The managers put more and more on their own plate while shielding their employees from failure. The employees then fail to learn the hard lessons that their manager once had to learn to succeed at their job. While sheltering an employee from failure may keep employees comfortable, we are doing a disservice to their potential. As managers, it is our obligation to seek out opportunities for “safe failures” for our employees to help them learn, recover, and, ultimately, reach their full potential.

To bring back the parenthood analogy, a safe failure is not asking your toddler to cross the street by themselves because they must learn eventually. A safe failure means it is OK for your toddler to fall while skiing without you right there to catch them.

Similarly, a safe failure in the office is not pushing your inexperienced employee in front of a difficult client alone. We learn from our mistakes, but seeking the right opportunity to make a mistake is not always at the front of our mind. These learning opportunities for our employees may take more time than if you had done it yourself, but the level of comprehension gained from stumbling cannot be matched.

Low stakes learning opportunities include:

  1. Internal tools with oversight. Repetitive tasks can be streamlined by creating standard tools such as spreadsheets, word documents, programs, etc. Giving a less experienced employee the opportunity to create a tool is a great opportunity for learning and a safe place for failure. A thorough review of the tool by the manager as well as a third party can be an opportunity for the employee to learn from any mistakes.
  2. Internal presentations. Similar to the tool, an internal presentation about a technical topic is a great opportunity for your employee to learn. Any mistakes found within preparation of the presentation – with a mentor’s review – provide for a low stakes learning opportunity.
  3. Quality control. Routine and early quality control present an opportunity for learning but catching a mistake is not enough. As managers, it is important to discuss what mistake(s) you found, explain the mistake(s) to the employee, as well as deconstruct any resolution. It is also critical to ensure there is enough time to catch mistakes early. An internal review conducted with ample time before the formal deadline gives employees an opportunity to correct their mistakes without a scramble and a rush. When managers notice a mistake and correct it themselves, they are taking away a safe learning opportunity.

To be clear, I have yet to see an employee tell a manager to back off as eloquently as my 3-year-old. However, even without clear verbalization, it is essential to our industry.

Failure is rarely an option when it comes to design and construction. Because of this, we must seek out the rare opportunities for safe failure and make the most of them to help our employees reach their full potential. 

Rachel Wilde is a senior associate and project manager in Walter P Moore’s Structural Group. She can be reached at

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