Friday, December 18, 2015

Organizations and the "Portals of Discovery"

This is the third post in a short series on failure.  The first post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, argued that failure is that cornerstone skill...the skill all other skills are built on.  Part 2 was How and Why to Get Better at Failing, based largely on a talk by Pema Chodron.  (If interested, both posts can be found on my LinkedIn home page.)

This third installment argues that, as bananas as it sounds, it is in the best interest of organizations to help their people to get better at failing and better at learning from failure.  I will provide some concrete suggestions on how to do both.

The title of this post contains a fragment of the James Joyce quote from Ulysses, "mistakes (i.e., failures) are the portals to discovery."  Discovery, innovation, breakthroughs...these are some of the most pressing goals in organizations today.  Yes, cost cutting and productivity are also important, but companies understand how to cut cost and the tools for increasing productivity are well known and reliable.

But, unlike Arthur Murray dance lessons, there are no footprints on the floor for the discovery process.  The only thing that can be reliably said about what precedes "A-ha!" moments is a lot of "Dang it!" moments.  If you want more A-ha's, you have to not only be comfortable with Dang it's! you'll need to support, encourage, mine, and maybe even celebrate them.

Let's say I am preaching to the converted here...you know that innovation and discovery are critical to your organization's success and you get the fact that neither of those two things are going to happen with out a lot of failures and false starts.  So you decide that you're ready and you want your organization to start to value failure, in the "portal to discovery" sense, and you want that to be a part of your culture.  How would would you go about that?

Organizational culture is not complicated or mystical.  It is the behavior of leaders.  Period.  End of story.  What can they do, what do they do, and what do they reward?  Extrapolating from that, a focus on Skills, Operating Mechanisms, Rewards form a kind of holy trinity for creating the culture you want.

On the skills front, what are the skills organizations need to cultivate to help their employees get better at failure?

Since some of my ideas are a little more out there, let me start with something eminently practical.  In my view, there is no skill like the ability to design and run experiments that gets one comfortable with failing, rapid learning, and getting back in the saddle to experiment again.  Anyone used to designing and running controlled experiments in, for example, manufacturing, advertising, direct marketing, or on landing pages is used to getting lots of data that shows no statistically significant difference.  Results like these are generally regarded as "failures."

Yet those failed experiments, especially if it is based on some kind of theoretical model of the construct being examined should yield the next hypotheses to test.  My dissertation adviser, Dr. John Campbell, used to say the wrong model is better than no model at all.  Why?  Because the wrong model will lead you to a more accurate model through continuous experimentation and model refinement.

So a culture built around continuously generating and testing ideas and using failed experiments to generate more hypotheses is a great way to get comfortable with failing and learning from failure.

But all of us are not scientists or Big Data geeks.  All of us are not working on projects that are like swings in a batting cage where the next pitch is on the way before you recover your balance from your colossal whiff. For many failure is a very tough pill to swallow and rattles one's confidence down to the bone.

Here is where organizations could augment their current skill development efforts with classes in contemplative education, in other words, meditation.

Now meditation is tragically trendy these days.  Movie stars, VCs, and everyone flying in private planes to Davos can't stop talking about how meditation has changed their lives.  So much so that Adam Grant recently wrote a piece in the NY Times called Can We End the Meditation Madness?.  This was an act of self-defense on his part because he was being nagged by newly minted mediators in the same way we have all been nagged by Paleo diet, Zone diet, and Landmark zealots.

But Adam's rant was mostly focused on alternative techniques for stress reduction that are just as good if not better than meditation.  And he is right.  Gil Fronsdal, head Zen teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City CA says that Americans need sleep more than they need meditation.  And meditation is, literally, his business.

However, as a method for getting some space between you and your thoughts so that you are not so identified with and consumed by them, there is nothing and I mean nothing that beats contemplative training and mediation.  And when you are in the grips of failure and the painful feelings it engenders, distance between you and your thoughts is exactly what is needed to keep you from going down the tubes...to keep you from days of lost productivity and sidelined relationships.  It enables you to sit with these painful feelings, to investigate them, and to not turn on yourself and those around you.

So offering contemplative education classes, on a voluntary basis, so no one freaks out about corporate mind control and religious conversion is another way organizations can help their people "fail better."

In the event this is too much New Age mumbo-jumbo for you, before you mouse over to the back arrow key, there are other things organizations are doing to acknowledge failure as necessary and learn from it that don't involve sitting up straight with your eyes closed.

The second key for creating the culture you want are Operating Mechanisms.  Operating Mechanisms are regular management reviews focused on a particular topic, for example three-year strategic planning or talent reviews.

As a means of accepting failure as a part of learning and growth, many organizations are stealing a page out of the Military handbook and implementing After Action Reviews (AAR)  (see Wikipedia for a an introductory overview).

The purpose of an AAR is to review what went well, what didn't, and to increase an organization's ability to engage in productive (learning) dialogue.  Brutal honesty is the hallmark of these meetings because when mistakes are made in the military, lives have been or will be lost and those mistakes cannot be repeated.

Though lives are rarely at stake, organizations are increasingly conducting reviews like this.  So much so that consulting firms are springing up whose bread and butter is coming in to teach organizations how to do it.  This is a huge step on the road to acknowledging that mistakes (failures) happen...that we can fail better by learning from them...and that it is possible to learn to move more quickly through the portal of discovery to new procedures and best practices.

The final key lever for creating culture is what management recognizes and rewards and what stories they continuously tell and retell.  In this regard, many organizations have Walls of Fame, where outstanding accomplishments or achievements are recognized. 

In some sense, these Walls of Fame are like ESPN's Sports Center, where night after night, you get to watch towering home runs, one-handed circus catches, and top-shelf wristers.  But where is the video of the off season training process?  The repeated dropped passes?  The shots that go high and wide?  The air balls? 

What organizations need is a Wall of Pre-Fame...a place where the missteps and mistakes on the way to breakthroughs and success can be documented.

People need these stories...stories about failures that were turned into success through perseverance not just highlight reels that make it seem like the outcome was preordained.  They need these stories so they better understand what the journey through the portal of discovery actually entails and so that they know the organization around them understands that failures are absolutely a part of that process.

People also need these stories because they face more failures than breakthroughs and those stories give them the wherewithal to keep going when success is in short supply. Organizations would be wise to elicit, highlight and promulgate stories about Pre-Fame to help their people grow.

In my final post, I will share what one organization is doing to not just welcome failure but flaunt it and turn it into joy.

Please share your thoughts below about what you have seen organizations do help people fail better or what you think they should be doing.

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