Failing Fast: How do we create a culture in which it’s okay to make mistakes?

Missed Target

A few weeks ago we had a ConversationStorm call on “failing fast.” While it seems everyone is encouraged to find new and improved ways of doing things, quite often corporate culture does not allow room for taking risks.

As luck would have it, member David Kay posted about this very topic the day before our call. He says, “…I started looking around at our own business, and our clients’ businesses, and everywhere I looked, I saw operations that were Too Expensive To Fail.” David references a great article by Clay Shirky about Healthcare.gov, and how failure, however much we want to forbid it, is always an option.

On our call, we discussed a number of ways to reframe failure as a positive for the organization.

Crystal Christensen from Dell spoke about how they try new things. A project plan is created, which always includes a pilot phase. The end of the pilot (which runs for a maximum of 90 days) provides an opportunity for a debrief and determination on whether the project is worth the time and effort. The pilot program always provides some measure of learning, even for failed projects. Projects begin and are evaluated based on the following:

  • What of my KPI’s does this change/support?
  • What do the changes look like?
  • What are the expected benefits (how measuring success)?
  • Internal developers: quote for time (what’s the cost)?

When approaching changes, Mr. Shirky says, “the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work.” Including a pilot phase in your project plan allows for a pause in which you can learn from and iterate on the original premise.

Andrea Campbell from the University of Phoenix talked about how they focus more on correction than they do on failure. Their culture supports trying lots of new things and gathering lessons, in part because of the language they use. They find that people are much more willing to iterate on projects when they focus on “opportunities” rather than “failure.”

When asking people to try new things, a level of transparency increases trust. Allow for some level of experience in order to build confidence; baby steps help. For more thoughts on encouraging your team to fail more (including implementing a “failure metric”!) check out Jason Seiken’s post on HBR.

Another idea we explored on the call was how to know when to call it quits on a new idea. When do you know the time is right to put an idea to rest? How many iterations are reasonable? And when it’s time for an idea to be put to rest, how do you extract the learning?

Momsrising.org (a grassroots organizations working to give mothers a political voice) holds “Joyful Funerals” when they determine a new process or technology isn’t working. Click here for a one-minute video about how that works.

Dell has project closure notifications that include how many goals were achieved, whether it ran over or under budget, learnings, and next steps. These are stored based on customer & product.

And finally, we determined that for projects that just don’t work, asking why five times can help map back to the root cause.

Let us know how you manage failure (and let us know if there’s a topic you’d like to explore with Consortium members in an upcoming ConversationStorm call).

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