If you’ve only watched sports on TV, one of the first things you notice when you attend your first live hockey, baseball or basketball game is the absence of the on-air commentators’ voices.

Although there’s probably a certain number of people who tune into Hockey Night in Canada and wish they could mute the commentators while keeping the sounds of the game, there’s a real art to providing the context and analysis that can educate the audience on what’s being accomplished (or not). And like all of us, IT professionals have their own inner commentators, even if, like most of us, they don’t always use them the right way.

Think about the notion of innovation, for example. Everyone talks about it, lots of people want to do it but the results don’t seem to keep up with the hype. Maybe that’s because we treat innovation too much like work and not enough like play.

As I sat through yet another conference that focused on innovation today, someone stood up at one point to make the following point about the relationship between innovation and play.

“Part of play is losing,” he said. “That’s what enterprises really stink at. They even fail at failing.”

We’ve all heard about the need to fail first in order to succeed, but looking at it from the perspective of play is interesting. In sports, failures aren’t exactly encouraged but they are expected in a fairly high ratio vis-à-vis victories. When IT projects fail, they often seem to taint the credibility of those involved. If the project was considered potentially innovative, the stakes are higher and the potential reputational damage greater.

I’m currently working on a project that is (so far) failing. And I can’t say I’m able to treat it as a game. There are real consequences to work-related failures, but it occurred to me that as we fail, we should be looking at what we can learn while we’re failing, rather than wait for the post-mortem. In other words, we should train our inner commentators to act less panicked (which sports commentators never are), but dispassionately analyze what’s going on and put those observations in the larger perspective of previous performance, changing competition, threats and possible avenues for future success. That’s what the great sports commentators do. As do the IT leaders who best recover from failure.

IT departments can’t expect enterprises to be as forgiving about failures as sports fans (sometimes) are. No one wants a loser, but there’s a way to lose that looks a lot more like winning. And that may be where the real innovation begins.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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