The Failure Shirt: Agile Diplomats at the EU

“We made a mistake. They are going to hate me tomorrow,” he said.

Imagine a room with 28 EU diplomats, twice that many specialists, dozens of translators, and one chairman who needs to tell everyone that his team has made a planning mistake and that everyone will suffer for it.

Needless to say, the chairman wasn’t looking forward to the next day. “I need them in a cooperative mode,” he said. “It is hard enough already to get agreements out of 28 countries. They will be very annoyed with us screwing up the planning. We’re not going to make much progress tomorrow.”

The Failure Hat

This problem made me think of people management in agile environments. Agile teams often have creative solutions to social problems, and one of those solutions immediately came to mind.

I told the chairman that, on some agile teams, if anyone has made a mistake for which the entire team has to suffer, that person wears the failure hat for a whole day. If someone accidentally destabilizes the product or “breaks the build” he or she is visually identified as the scapegoat, in a playful manner, so that everyone knows who did it. With a failure hat, people change from pointing fingers to poking fun.

Resentment and Vengeance

It is a human tendency to be resentful when other people make mistakes for which we have to suffer. In fact, vengeance is one of the sixteen basic desires of human beings, says behavioral psychologist Professor Steven Reiss. Even if there’s no immediate urge to hit back and retaliate for any (accidental) wrongdoings, we certainly feel it’s in our right to be pissed off and remain uncooperative, until the feelings of irritation have worn off. And this can take a while.

That’s why it’s rarely enough just to say, “I’m sorry”, however sincerely these words are spoken. The apology takes just one second of communication. But it can take hours for an annoyed person to say sincerely, “OK, I forgive you.” And on an agile team, or with a group of 28 diplomats, these can be costly uncooperative hours.

The Failure Shirt

I advised the chairman, “After you told them that you’re sorry, wear a silly hat, or a stupid shirt, for the rest of the day. Explain to them the meaning of the failure hat or failure shirt: You openly admit the mistake, and you allow everyone to point at you and laugh at you for a whole day, on the condition that you can immediately switch back into a collaborative mode.”

The next day, the chairman, who is well-known for his expensive suits and crisply tailored shirts, did exactly what I said. For the sake of the meeting, he sacrificed his dignity, admitted the mistake of his team, took off his jacket and stark white shirt in front of 80+ diplomats, specialists, and translators, and revealed the most ridiculous colored T-shirt that anyone had ever worn during an EU negotiation.

It was a huge success.

He received great applause, and laughs and cheers from everyone in the room. During the coffee breaks, half of the attendees took pictures and selfies with him and some congratulated him on his smart management move.

Most importantly, the rest of the day, the group enjoyed a cooperative and maybe even somewhat festive mood. People’s feelings of resentment and vengeance were satisfied: They could all see the chairman sitting there, suffering, in his silly shirt. Who wouldn’t smile at that? Let’s take another picture! The rest of the meeting was conducted in the failure shirt.

Afterward, the chairman said to me, “We made significant progress today, and I am now ridiculously popular. You’re my secret weapon!”

I felt extremely pleased that better management practices can work in any context. And also happy that I had an opportunity to assist in the career of my husband.

p.s. Make sure that wearing the shirt or hat feels somewhat embarrassing to the guilty person. I wouldn’t feel guilty in a colorful T-shirt. In fact, it was my shirt.


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