“One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford, early 20th century American automobile pioneer
The environment of most organizations is too poisonous for innovation and organizational learning to flourish. A mistake is generally a CLM — career-limiting move. Making a mistake in front of many managers is like cutting yourself in front of Dracula. So people become defensive. They cover up problems, setbacks, and missed goals. When people in closed, mistake-averse organizations encounter problems, they immediately go to work on fixing. . . the blame. Everyone becomes so busy denying mistakes that they can’t possibly learn from them.
There’s a direct and strong relationship between organization trust and innovation. If I feel that management is just waiting for me to trip up so they can put a big black mark beside my name, why would I risk trying something new? It’s far safer to be a critic. I can take critical shots at meetings and write memos pointing out how imperfectly other people have done things that I am too afraid to even try.
I can establish a wonderful batting average by reducing my trips to the plate to only those times I am facing a very weak pitcher. Why would I give a new idea a clumsy try if I think that anything less than a total success would be frowned on?
If we want more experimentation and learning on our teams or organizations, we must establish an atmosphere that builds self-confidence and trust. Trust is extraordinarily fragile. Building it is a subtle, long-term process. It doesn’t come from what we say — like telling people to trust us or talking about trust as a core value.
Trust is built or destroyed by what we do. How are mistakes treated? How much experimenting do we personally model and encourage in others? Who gets rewarded and recognized for what behavior? What management support systems and processes are in place? How much and what type of skills are developed and for whom? What information is shared, by whom, and with whom? Do we keep our promises? Do we truly live according to our values? How clear and consistent are our goals and priorities?
These are just some of the trust issues. But as we contemplate our answers to these questions, the most important question of all is how do we know? We need to ask those people whose trust we need to build how they would answer these questions. To get their truthful responses — and lay the foundation for trust building — let them answer anonymously.
A big cause of team and organization learning impairments is lack of openness. As mistakes are made, pilot tests run, and tries clumsily attempted, learning occurs. Unless those results are openly and widely shared, everyone is reduced to learning only from their own experiences. That’s an expensive waste of time and resources. We need active internal networks and processes for sharing all that rich learning experience. But these are only useful if we have a high level of trust within a culture that sees mistakes as opportunities to advance the team or organization’s learning.