Friday, 22 February 2013

Success stops learning – fail fast, fall forward: celebrate failure

The key to competitive advantage in changing and deeply uncertain times is to discover new "right answers" and get them to market first. Previous answers won’t do. No one, not even the boss!, knows what the new answers are. We have to find out by experimenting together and learning fast from failures. 

That may make simple sense, but doing it is hard because failure is typically not allowed. We know that if we want to be successful we have to look successful; associate with winners not losers. Failing is losing. Success is winning.

Bosses and teachers are expected to know the answers. Subordinates and students are rewarded for doing what bosses and teachers want. To question the boss’s answer is not a good career move. With some bosses, it’s OK to question provided you already have a convincing alternative answer. Some bosses try to look like they know by pinching subordinates’ answers for their own and taking the credit. That’s how they got to be bosses. "Everyone knows" that’s how promotion works.

The result of this emphasis on success and knowing is that organisations and individuals stop learning; thinking happens in interminable closed loops; workforces become cynically compliant and/or aggressively self-serving.  

How do we break that deadly loop? The answer seems to be in the process of deliberately celebrating failure.

For instance, a Canadian Engineering NGO, Engineers Without Borders, is an organisation that seems to have broken the loop with a process called The Failure Report. Of course they didn’t get it right straight off. They failed plenty along the way. Basically it’s about open admission and shared reflection on failures.

What they learned* is:  
  1. The Failure Report is a dynamic tool for learning but the real power is its ability to shift organizational cultures.
  2. It is absolutely critical to have buy-in and support from the highest levels of management - the boss must risk reporting failure too.
  3. Understand your organization's unique failure foundations – identify and actively remove the blockages to people speaking openly about failure.
  4. Decouple ego from activity - maximise and acknowledge learning from failure so that ego can remain intact though failure
  5. Tell stories but don’t paraphrase them into simple lessons for others - tell them in full and in context and leave discussion and interpretation to individuals and groups. (I just failed that by posting this list*)
  6.  Go big or go home. No sugar-coating allowed - be dedicated to honesty and humility and deal with the elephants in the room.
*For the full story click here.


Monday, 18 February 2013

What’s changed in 12 months?

Maybe it’s now obvious that the economy isn’t going to simply  “bounce back”; maybe the pressure for enduring radical change is closer to tipping point.

Nevertheless, so long as our circumstances allow us to ignore or deny that - allow individuals and organisations to simply blame others for failures and claim credit for fortunate successes, nothing new is learned and nothing changed.

National politics is obviously dominated by that sort of behaviour. It’s less publicly obvious in business where executives, earning 50+ times their employee’s average wage, continue to take bonuses and repeat their sorcery for the next anxiously credulous company. 

The most likely place for transformational change to break out is on the fringes of markets and industries, in outlying parts of larger organisations and in smaller firms (SMEs).

However, though SMEs  don’t have the bureaucratic burden and organisational inertia of big firms, they are likely locked into their own historical co-dependent behaviours and relationships. Those behaviours and relationships developed around and out of the founders personality and skills coupled with complementary market opportunity. Through them the firm survived and grew – succeeded. That success, perversely, shuts out new learning and change. 

An army of conventional mentors, coaches, consultants, and educators won’t change that because they’re locked into their own conventional histories. To have transformative effect they must first transform themselves and their organisations. But they have the very same impediments that their clients have. How then do we break this single loop control circuit?

I’m writing about this in a series of posts in another blog  

Business Exit Ltd is a collaboration of mature business people who, for one reason or another, have been fortunate to experience transformative change and to experience leading it too. Our passion is to collaboratively exercise and develop our unusual experiential knowledge and wisdom, for good. 

Although we are mature (old dogs), we are keen and effective learners, putting the lie to assumptions about change being the preserve of youth. To the contrary, we observe that young, educated people these days are strongly risk (change) averse.

We are interested to hear other’s stories as well as share our own.