Celebrating Failure

A few years ago I was wandering around a manufacturing plant with the owner as he explained their production processes. As we walked around I observed a taut wire surrounding an area of production and as we approached the owner touched the wire. I inquired as to the purpose of the wire and he explained that the wire needed to be maintained at a constant tension to enable a production process to proceed. I enquired as to the consequences if the wire was slack. His response was ‘someone will get fired’. I asked if he ever complimented the crew for maintaining the correct tension. The owner looked at me as if I was from another planet.

Clearly there are some processes within any organisation where the margin for error is very small; and the consequences can be catastropic. In those circumstances your focus should shift from condemning failure, to celebrating success. Just because something should be done is rarely sufficient reason for it to be done correctly, every time. People respond in a positive manner to positive reinforcement.

At the other end of the scale there is considerably more scope for allowing failure to become a learning opportunity. At this end, the much larger slice of the pie, you should look to celebrate failure. This does not imply you should tolerate continuous, or repeated failure. There is an obligation upon an employer to ensure appropriate and relevant supervision, training and coaching is provided. There is an obligation upon an employee to learn from their experiences and avoid making the same mistake again.

The traditional approach to mistakes is to say, ‘don’t do it again’. Within that statement is an implied threat. This sets up an environment of fear within which people become risk averse. This is bad for your business.

A learning approach is to sit down and dissect the situation. Clarify what took place, what were the impacts and what was learned from the experience. Then ask how can we change the system or process to minimise the possibility of others making the same mistake? This is a no blame, no fear, learning experience. In this environment your people will understand that if they make a mistake, while expected to learn from it, they will unlikely suffer any negative consequences.

People want to do the job in the correct manner. Rules and procedures provide clarity and structure and people like to work within a structure. When mistakes occur, instead of heaping crap upon the person making the mistake, ask yourself, how can we change the system and procedures? The majority of procedural errors are created by poor policies, badly explained procedures, a lack of supervision, a lack of coaching and a lack of feedback processes.

Yes, there are some that for one reason or another will continuously break the rules, or try to play the game by their own rules and when that happens, assuming the system and processes are clear, there may be a need for remedial action. At this point one-to-one mentoring and coaching by their line manager becomes critical.

An employee in a social services organisation was a serial offender for making decisions based upon emotion, with complete disregard for standard operating procedures. This person’s heart was in the right place, and did a great job helping clients, but was unwilling to work within a structure. It created wastage, tension, stress and ultimately impacted upon future opportunities for promotion. Despite guidance and advice from colleagues there was no change in behaviour. The result was dissatisfaction all round, the organisation playing a waiting game until this employee decided to work elsewhere.

This case study illustrates the impact of the 1% of situations that cannot be resolved through either positive reinforcement or punitive action. The majority of people however respond in a positive manner to positive affirmation.

Next time you are wandering around your business, take time to ask people why they do what they do, take time to tell them they are doing a great job and even explain how their work contributes to the strategic outcomes of the business. When something goes wrong, look to your systems and processes before you condemn the people.

Since 2002, John Coxon has provided advice and guidance to nonprofit organisations and small business operators. His building block process comprises a series of assessment and audit tools to provide your management group with the data to inform decisions and prioritise activities.

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