EVERY COMPANY NEEDS PEOPLE WHO CAN REGULARLY FAIL

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time

Author: Steve Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Steve Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I have long believed that people who do not make mistakes are people who are not trying hard enough, and are people who are unlikely to succeed in their endeavours.

I have never admired Steve Jobs for his leadership, as he was a despotic egomaniac , but I certainly have admired him for the fact that he was a brilliantly unreasonable agent for change. Before returning to Apple from the wilderness in 1996, and flooding the world with iPods, iPhones and iPads, he made lots of mistakes along the way including bringing Apple to its knees in 1985, when he was unceremoniously ousted by the board.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blake4tx/352328190/; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blake4tx/352328190/; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I have always told my people that they would not get fired for making honest mistakes, as long as they learned from it so as to not have repetitions, as I have long believed that if we could try 10 different things and six or seven of them worked, we would be well ahead. The reality being that we would not have achieved the six or seven successes if we had not tried the ten. The problem is that many people are too scared to try anything new because of a fear of the repercussions for failure.

The truth is that we tend to learn more from our mistakes than we learn from our successes, as success can sometimes even blind us to the fact that it may have been more a result of circumstance and timing rather than personal skill.

I have a good friend who made an embarrassing amount of money in the Sydney property market in the late 1970s, as did most other people at the time, as Sydney went through a massive property boom. Sadly this success taught him little, as rather than accepting that “all boats rise in a high tide”, he started to believe that his success had to be due to his personal brilliance, so he then proceeded to lose everything that he had made in the previous decade, by playing the futures and currency markets for just one year. This failure was a better learning exercise, and he has now managed to rebuild his personal wealth, with a better understanding of his own limitations as well as his skills.

Author: DAVID ILIFF; CC-BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: DAVID ILIFF; CC-BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


The problem starts with most educational systems that tend to encourage conformity much more than creativity, as very few schools and few teachers find it easy to handle students who are different. As a result, children who do not fit into the “normal mould” are generally not accepted, and tend to be pushed to the side, while the focus stays on the herd. The emphasis is much more on learning to be right rather than learning to be creative or innovative, and if they then move into the business world, they tend to hit these same attitudes.

There was a wonderful example of this in Australia in the 1970s, which was so good that I have long wondered whether it was just an urban myth. A question in an Australian history exam said simply “Take any year and discuss sheep and sheep distribution in Australia”. One student, as his answer, wrote “100 BC, no sheep”. He didn’t give an answer that was acceptable to the guardians of educational rightness at the time, however he was totally accurate in his analysis, as sheep didn’t arrive in Australia till 1788 with the first fleet. I am sure that his creativity was not rewarded then, and I have no doubt that neither would it be rewarded today.

Author: Cgoodwin (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Cgoodwin (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I find that most companies also tend to reward those who protect the status quo rather than those who want to experiment with change, thereby creating a culture where any failure is a serious career limiter. This will then ensure that people become strongly risk averse and will then only do what has been done before (see “If you always do what you have always done” posted April 29, 2013). Building a culture that is risk averse means that managers will tend to recruit and/or promote only those people that fit the existing mould and who will be unlikely to test the existing boundaries. This protection of “the way we do things around here” will start on day one with the induction of new employees, to put into them the fear of being or thinking differently.

At our induction programmes in Asia Pacific in the 1990s, when we were growing by 60+% annually, I would personally start every induction programme. I would tell the intake to take out one of their new SAP business cards, to cross out their official title, and replace it with “agent for change”, as what we did yesterday to be successful would not work today, and what we did today would not work tomorrow. I would also encourage them to be not scared to make mistakes, as the management believed that people who did not make any mistakes at all, were less valuable to us in the long run than those who were not scared to experiment. We did everything that we could do to try to help them remove the fear of making mistakes, as we needed them to be prepared to question what we did if they felt there could be a better way. Our expression was that “sacred cows made great hamburgers” (with apologies to our Hindu employees).

Every company needs people who are courageous enough to try new things, are not scared to question and challenge the status quo, who are unreasonable enough to drive change and who therefore are likely to regularly fail, safe in the belief that they are doing what is needed.

Someone wise once said “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather that something is more important than fear”.

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16 Responses to EVERY COMPANY NEEDS PEOPLE WHO CAN REGULARLY FAIL

  1. Ivan Gomez says:

    Hi Les, thanks for another great post. for me personally, it translates into 3 points:
    1. Everybody, in every company – regularly fails (failure has many dimensions)
    2. Company culture, should support failure – as a requisite part of the path to innovation, maturity and success.
    3. The most value comes… from the ‘right people’ failing.

    • leshayman says:

      Ivan, well put.
      The only thing I would add is that if you recruit carefully, then all your people are the “right people”, and the skill of the manager is to ensure that all learn from their mistakes, and continue to try new things without fear. Les

  2. `Loved the sheep story. It reminded me of a friend at school in the days when we got hand-written questions in mock exams. She wrote about “continental sheep” in answer to a question on a “continental shelf.”

  3. Les,

    Love how you opened the door to innovation at SAP by making it clear that making mistakes and learning from this was not just okay but expected. People have been telling us that the reason companies do not have more managers who are good at developing people is that there are viruses in the culture. One such virus is saying, but not really meaning, that it is okay to learn from failure. A manager told us, “My employees have no idea how bloodied I get fighting for their development.” How was he fighting? In many cases for putting people in situations with room for growth but the inevitable prospect of some failures.

    • leshayman says:

      Jeannie, I have long believed that if you just give people a real chance to do great things, they will do great things. This means that managers need to create an environment where people feel free enough, and confident enough, to take “calculated risks”, which means they will take the sort of chances that may result in mistakes, but rarely taking the sort of chances that can seriously damage the company. However, as good people tend to be right more often than they are wrong, at least they ultimately make good things happen. Les

  4. Bruce Rankin says:

    Excellent post Les,
    I can well remember a couple of mistakes (out of no doubt many) in my career – one way back in IBM Christchurch in 1968(!) and another nearly 40 years later- both burned into my conscious. They were real learning experiences and I was able/allowed to survive. Thanks to my managers.

    A key corollary to your post, is that we, the ‘transgressors’, must also be able to learn and profit from those mistakes so as not to repeat them, in order to grow and develop. Your point about not having repetitions.

    To this end a colleague in EDS just a few years ago, in a discussion observed to me wrt to people and our mistakes [you might like to tweak these]:
    “There are three categories of people –
    “The intelligent person learns from past experience and other peoples’ mistakes and generally avoids them.
    “The normal or average person makes at least one mistake and learns from it.
    “The unintelligent person never learns from his/her mistakes and continues to repeat them.”

    Your use of a sporting analogy with Michael Johnson is salient, in that it reminded me of my father in his rugby coaching – 60 years ago – who said: “We laid down some rules…. We told the players they would get three games to prove themselves. If their first match was a poor one, we would forgive it; if their second was also poor we would become suspicious; if their third was also poor then it was out.” Your point again about not having repetitions.

    Lastly, an observation is that there are “sins of omission” and “sins of comission”. The former are more common, forgiveable and the type we can learn from. Whereas the latter are serious, not readily forgiveable and may necessitate disciplinary action.

    • leshayman says:

      Bruce, lucky you survived otherwise we would not have met at IH.
      You are right about the difference between “honest mistakes” and dishonesty. I always said lying/cheating/thieving meant instant dismissal, whereas honest mistakes were acceptable as long as we learned from them, not just from our own, but also from those around us. Les

  5. Tom says:

    Hi Les,

    Your post is “right on” and I loved your analogies.

    As a venture capitalist I not only have to live with failure, I actually have to plan for it by taking a portfolio approach and being prepared to make the difficult choice of tying off the feeding tube to a portfolio company if it has seriously diminished prospects. Very often the entrepreneurs/managers were very competent and worked extremely hard, but ended up failing due to market conditions or factors beyond their control. Several dusted themselves off and got involved in other early stage companies that went on to considerable success having learned from their failures. My point here is that entrepreneurs by definition are plowing new ground and taking outsized personal risk in chase of an idea. The smaller companies are much more fragile and they are usually not afforded the warm womb of a forgiving manager in a large company.That having been said, not one of my successful companies ever made its budget and most succeeded in ways or in an area unrelated to the original business plan. Learning from your mistakes, being able to assimilate new information and adapt to it and hiring the best available people is very highly correlated to success in my small world!

    Regards,

    Tom

    • leshayman says:

      Tom, thanks for adding other dimensions of the VC and start-ups.

      • leshayman says:

        … didn’t quite finish.
        Tom, it shows that great people don’t necessarily get it right first time on the way to success, but that even if it means changing direction(s), they can get there, learning along the way. Les

  6. Les

    Nice post. Here are my 2 cents

    1/ Education system – I used to always look at the education system as something which started about teaching how to use the building blocks of learning and then applying it in different scenarios and you have case studies, theories, then new theories after old ones get disproved. As an analogy, I used to think about Lego, where people learn about different blocks and its application then they build their own designs. Somewhere the education system slipped into teaching how to build A house, A car etc using Lego and didn’t know how to assess some one building a car with 3 wheels! So the system slipped from Effectiveness to Efficiency.

    2/ People – Fear of the unknown and control are 2 factors that are interconnected. People who look at it as a challenge build a big fence to keep the unknown outside the fence and control whats inside. Whereas people who look at it as an opportunity, try to know the unknown and enable people around them to do so and bring the unknown inside. The outlook towards opportunity/challenge is mostly based on their inner confidence – some people look at the similarities and what they know that’s relevant to a new situation, whereas some look at the differences and what they don’t know about the new situation. If you have more of the former and less of the latter, you drive forward, if its the opposite, you withdraw.

    • leshayman says:

      Ramesh, you are spot on about the education system, which has created an environment where creative people are viewed with suspicion, rather than being fostered in the business world, so those that protect the status quo tend to gain ascendency.

      Interestingly, looking for similarities is also how to learn a new language. When I moved to France I realised that seeing similarities between French and English, was a better way to learn than just looking at French as being totally foreign. When I found out for example that words that end in …tion are the same in both, it gave me the confidence to look for more, which got me going faster with my learning. Les

      • Les
        Nice example about learning French, I guess I have to do the same as well. My wife will be happy to know this, she is French 🙂
        – Ramesh

  7. Les,
    Great post – I had forgotten the MJ quote, I find it hugely relevant.
    On the lighter side, my Grandfather had a story similar to your sheep question. Allegedly in an Geography exam on a question relating to farming, it requested that the student “list the uses of leather”, to which he responded “To keep the cow together”. Totally accurate in his analysis, but ended with a fail grade…
    Best
    Simon

  8. Pingback: Carnival of Quality Management Articles and Blogs – June 2013 | The world is too small? or Is it?

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