Fail, Learn, Lead
Do you have a lot of room in your organization for people to learn? Or as soon as they step out of their comfort zone, do things get a little scary?
What you do as a leader has a huge impact on the behaviors of others in terms of their own learning. Scott Burken, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker, takes this on in his blog post How to Create Great Work Environments. In it he talks about encouraging people to make mistakes. Obviously we don’t want to encourage people to make mistakes, but what do we want? We want people to surface mistakes or errors as they occur. We want them to own them and fix them. And we do want them to learn from them when they do occur. Scott offers several hints, and here is one of them:
The person in power defines the culture through their behavior. If the bossman fires people for making a small mistake, people will hide mistakes and obsess about avoiding them, making creativity and innovation unlikely. If the bossman instead sees failures as learning moments, and takes time to teach solutions, or asks the mistake maker what they learned and how it can be avoided next time, people will feel there is room for them to learn. Many people in power are not self-aware enough to see the gap between what they say, and what they do, despite the fact people respond only to the later. Most managers are more punitive and risk-averse than they think they are.
To this point, the leader cannot punish failed experiments. It doesn’t mean that you get fired, you may just get a bad review or get sent to run the Siberian division. Or just a casual comment at a meeting deriding your failure. It doesn’t take much. If failed experiments lead to any punishment, the message is clear – don’t experiment, and don’t try new things.
How to fail, and get away with it..
I think HOW we fail makes a real difference as well. This is why I use the word experimentation. Experiments are structured with the idea in advance that we don’t really know what’s going to happen. We just have a hypothesis, or an educated guess. We expect to get a positive result, but don’t know with certainty. Not only does the process help you learn, but it helps manage expectations, with others and with yourself, that it is a learning process.
The “boss” does need to set the example for this. Many I see are willing to do experiments and have them fail. But they keep their personal experiments, and failures, private. It’s not always that they are afraid of failure; sometimes they think sharing = bragging. But if the boss doesn’t share what they are trying, and failing at, then it is, by definition, hypocrisy.
Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, said:
Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can so you can make progress quickly.
The right culture surrounding the right processes can make that environment work.