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The mother of all F@&k ups

Posted by Veronica Wainstein on December 14, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Veronica Wainstein
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png (1).pngOur MD, Veronica Wainstein, talks about the importance of creating a culture that allows failure in your company.

We have all heard the motivational statements that keep getting drummed into us that failure or adversity are good because we learn and grow from our mistakes more than our successes.  These can really become tiresome, because it’s always so much easier said than done.  At the end of the day, no one likes to fail, no one likes the feeling of losing and no one looks forward to the learning.  The reality is that only hindsight gives us the understanding that failing was actually the best thing that happened.

As a business we tend to spend our time looking forward.  We make three year, five year and ten year plans.  So we sometimes overlook how great the learnings from hindsight actually are.  We push our teams to work harder, do better, do it in less time, do it within process and make sure you do it right – I too am guilty of this.

Of the many brilliant things I learnt at Inbound17, the concept of Creating a Culture where failing is ok, was something that really stood out for me.  The premise is that without some kind of leeway people and businesses can’t innovate or disrupt.  If we keep doing the same things we have always been doing, we will continue to get the same results with little room for growth.

A culture that says ‘take a risk, win or lose’, means that employees have the opportunity to push themselves, to be creative, to find new ways of doing things and keep searching for better solutions.  The tough part is finding the balance, I mean as the saying goes – give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.  So we don’t want a team of people drowning in their failure, we want them to experiment, to take some chances and to know that the outcome is good either way, but we also need them to know that their day to day jobs of following the process and working toward the company’s goals is just as important.


Image from https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure

Here are some tips of how to find the balance and create an environment where the occasional F@*K up gets the thumbs up:

1) Encourage transparency in your company

Says Forbes, “Employees should feel comfortable communicating ideas across different departments and channels. Transparency in the workplace helps reduce some of the tendency to hide or conceal mistakes. After all, if everyone is comfortable sharing ideas and failures, it sets a precedent that it’s no big deal, and that all employees can learn from each other’s successes and failures.”

2) Tell your employees that mistakes are great learning tools

Mistakes aren’t a catastrophe. “The best thing about mistakes is the opportunity to learn from them. In fact, failure can be one of the fastest, most effective learning tools,” says BizJournal. Communicate this clearly to your team by approaching mistakes as a genuine learning opportunity. BizJournal explains, “If something doesn’t work out, strive to understand why it happened, how it could have been prevented and how to avoid making this mistake again. Then, don’t overthink it — move on.”

3) Growth mindset

Encourage a growth mindset in your company. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, says Entrepreneur Magazine, “characterise people as having either a ‘growth mindset,’ which welcomes the challenge inherent in failure, or a ‘fixed mindset,’ which resists any challenge that might be unsuccessful.” Look at the creative ways you can “fail smart” and use the mistakes to creatively grow.

4) Don’t play the blame game when things go wrong

Faults and blame, more often than not, go hand in hand, and many companies fear that without blame employees won’t take responsibility for their actions or strive for excellence. This makes creating a safe psychological environment challenging for most organisations. As the Harvard Business Review (HBR) explains, “In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can—and in some organizational contexts must—coexist with high standards for performance.” It begs the question - what is blameworthy, and what isn’t? Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate harm certainly, but inadvertent mistakes where the intention is good do not deserve the same level of punishment and blame. Says HBR, “  If [a mistake] results from fatigue near the end of an overly long shift, the manager who assigned the shift is more at fault than the employee. As we go down the list, it gets more and more difficult to find blameworthy acts. In fact, a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy. When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.”

5) Start from the top

“If employees are to learn that failure is encouraged, it needs to start with management,” says Forbes, “Organization leaders must not only demonstrate the importance of trying new solutions, but also be OK and even welcoming of others doing the same thing. It may require a top-down shift in mentality, but keep in mind that employees will take their cues from their leaders.”

6) Build a learning culture

Understand what happened, who did it, and focus on that. Says Harvard Business Review, “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures.”

7) Encourage communication

The goal is to learn of mistakes before they explode into something unmanageable and out of control. Unfortunately, most people try to hide mistakes as soon as they come up for some of the reasons mentioned above - such as being blamed and punished for errors. Harvard Business Review gives this great story to explain how to do this better: “Shortly after arriving from Boeing to take the reins at Ford, in September 2006, Alan Mulally instituted a new system for detecting failures. He asked managers to color code their reports green for good, yellow for caution, or red for problems—a common management technique. According to a 2009 story in Fortune, at his first few meetings all the managers coded their operations green, to Mulally’s frustration. Reminding them that the company had lost several billion dollars the previous year, he asked straight out, ‘Isn’t anything not going well?’ After one tentative yellow report was made about a serious product defect that would probably delay a launch, Mulally responded to the deathly silence that ensued with applause. After that, the weekly staff meetings were full of color.” 

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