Letting others fail

In the last couple of months I started to shift my attention from coding to making sure the team works properly. This of course brings lots of challenges and frustrations – but also you learn a lot about yourself.

One area it hit me very hard is mentoring people. I always did it, even at my first gig I trained and coached people in C# stuff. But boy I did it horribly wrong.

I spoon-fed people with my preferred solution, even pointing out syntax errors frustrated by their lack of speed or understanding. Of course this is wrong on many levels. Wise people say that we’re learning the most from our mistakes, and that the teaching process should include some failures as well.

Letting people fail (in a controlled environment, but we’ll return to this later) has many benefits. As for the mentor/leader it saves tons of time. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you offer full solutions every time you’ll find yourself offering the same solutions multiple times, to the very same people. On the other hand if you let them struggle and/or fail, they’ll be able to use the solution by themselves next time.

Now how do you let them fail? Who bears the consequences? I believe that you should select tasks which can be sacrificed and grant full ownership of those tasks to your mentees. I apply one caveat – I’ll hold my back if there’s a total failure. If they’re successful, they get the credit. This creates a safe sandbox for them to tackle the problem.

What happens in the case of total breakdown? I think it depends on the seniority level of the one who failed. Juniors shouldn’t be “prosecuted” and the issues should not bubble up to upper management. I tend to jump in as a last measure and fix the problem quickly. I’m sure there are better ways, but it incites trust and comradeship in the team if they know you’ll be there to help out if all else fails.

The lesson to be learned here for aspiring leads such as me is to lean back and let your teammates fail. Even if your organisation practices FDD (fear driven development) you can build a safe haven for your mentees and start reforms from the bottom.

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