AACN News—September 2005—Opinions

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Vol. 22, No. 9, SEPTEMBER 2005


Engage and Transform
Failure? Success? Learning? Ask the Right Question

By Debbie Brinker, RN, MSN, CCRN, CCNS
President, AACN

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
—Anais Nin

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? I’ve run across this provocative question on coffee mugs, magnets and note cards. For a long time, I thought it was one of those “free pass” questions. The kind that guarantees a moment of painless fantasy. Then I realized that I missed the point.
Isn’t the question really about learning, not success or failure? A question about engaging to identify the barriers and baggage that get in our way and transforming them into lessons learned that move us forward.

Baggage and Barriers
We carry so much baggage and encounter so many barriers, it’s no wonder we become disillusioned when we see things as we are. Sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes, organizational. Either way, we get derailed.

The baggage and barriers that may come with age carry a familiar ring. Educator and social activist John W. Gardner described this in a book first published 40 years ago. “One of the reasons mature people are apt to learn less than young people,” he wrote, “is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure.” Unlike children and adolescents, adults have more say about when and where they want to be tested. So, we gravitate toward what we do well and avoid where we’ve failed. In every case, we have made a judgment about what failure and success mean. We may do it subconsciously or with an emotional response that ignores the facts. Yet, every judgment colors our perspective on what we’ll do next.

Each of us brings to an organization a personal history that frames our tolerance for risk or reward. When we’re not supported in designing and implementing changes or when projects in our past did not reach the desired outcomes, we’re less likely to tolerate trying something new. It’s tough to look at things in a new light or with a different mindset. To see things as they are instead of as we are.

How often do we hear, “We tried it before and it didn’t work?” Maybe, we’re the ones saying it. We may believe our position isn’t worth the battles and frustrations, if we expect to be left out on a limb without support when we’re trying to achieve an essential positive outcome.

In contrast, we may fear that success will mean more engagement than we bargained for and demand higher performance from ourselves and others. The risk of staying in the familiar, albeit painful, status quo may seem easier than the risk of creating a new and positive outcome. It may be easier, but hardly fulfilling.

Reconsidering Failure
Reflecting on what we would attempt if we knew we could not fail engages us in a mindset of self-transformation, where we reflect on the internal fears of failure or success that block us from reaching our dreams and creating optimal conditions for our work. For organizations, failure means leaving things as they are. Organizations fail when they don’t evolve toward excellence, effectively meeting the challenges of the times. They fail when broken systems remain broken and when, paradoxically, resources are dedicated to sustaining brokenness.

Identifying the source of those fears puts us in a better place to adopt a new perspective about failure, one where we recognize that failure is when outcomes don’t meet expectations, and expectations are usually ours to define. That shift alone can open the door to learning when something fails and celebrating when it succeeds.

Setting Ourselves Up … to Learn
Picture this. You work in a place where co-workers are genuinely engaged to create changes. Leaders support individuals to work on unit specific strategies to increase nursing retention and improve team collaboration. Abusive behavior is not tolerated. It triggers calling a Code Pink, where an abusive individual is immediately surrounded by team members whose very presence curbs the behavior. When errors occur—after all, errors are another form of failure—the team comes together to learn and create blame-free system changes for system problems.

Engagement and transformation of individuals leads to engagement and transformation of your organization. Creative solutions are expected where you work. Individuals and work teams are meaningfully rewarded for money-saving ideas. Leaders feel humility, acknowledge mistakes and credit teams for success.

Keeping Focused
I have reflected a great deal on how to shift my gaze away from failure and success to focus on learning. Maybe some of what I have learned for myself will prime the pump for your own reflection.

• Get out of my comfort zone.
• Do I have a skill barrier or a perspective barrier? If I’m lacking a skill, acquire it or join with those who already have it.
• Focus on what matters most to me, my unit, my organization.
• Enjoy exploring my dreams with the barrier of failure lifted.
• So long as it is moral, legal and ethical, commit to doing whatever it takes to reach my goal. Commitment is the glue holding it all together. There will always be a way if I stay committed.
• Rally my supports—co-mentors, committees of key stakeholders and committed individuals—to see something through.
• Be true to myself. Act with personal integrity and don’t go against my personal values. If it doesn’t feel right in my gut, don’t do it.
• Decide that failure doesn’t exist. Not achieving my intended outcome leads to learning and new opportunities for change and growth.
• If it is to be, it’s up to me. Will I get bitter or better?

Picking the right issue at the right time might be the key. What is of greatest value to you? Your unit? Your organization? Is it creating a more collaborative team that values communication and refuses to tolerate disrespect? Is it developing support systems that move evidence into practice more rapidly? It depends on what you choose to take on. Once you identify the right issue, you cannot waver. Even when change is ploddingly slow, or halts for a spell, your commitment is transformational. And, if you are transformed, how can that be a failure?