Training is one way forward. External or bespoke in-house programmes address specific issues but run the risk of keeping learning separate from the workplace, tucked away neatly in the smart binder. To make the most of these opportunities the manager must follow up and maybe provide a coach or internal mentor to track action in the weeks and months following.
A method used in great companies is to provide ‘real-time' challenge in the workplace by giving people projects that stretch them, or by seconding them to another department for a specific piece of work. This ensures that learning is tied to work, bringing fresh ideas and ‘out of the box' thinking. For some, it is taking on a totally different job, even if that means retraining. The latter carries an inevitable cost as the person gets to grips with the new role, but this is balanced by the value of a different approach with all the fresh thinking and creativity that that brings. It depends how you see life: is it better to do the same thing more or to look for new ways of approaching the tried and tested? Individual development fuels company growth and change.
Moving out of the box is the great company way forward. It can be tough and stressful on occasions, so support must be in good supply. David, a young manager from Kent Messenger Group discovered this when the time came to appraise a reluctant and older direct report. She took her concerns to David's manager and was told ‘You have two choices. Have your appraisal with David, or don't have one.' That his manager was so convinced it would work encouraged them both, and the appraisal meeting went remarkably well. Facing the unfamiliar is not easy. It needs all those concerned to be willing to do their best. In this case, the senior manager maintained support for David in the face of challenge, David was brave enough to continue, and the direct report was open, honest and generous, learning ‘not to take people at face value'.
Mistakes are inevitable in a forward-thinking company. Innovators get used to the feeling of getting it wrong and spend time looking to what they have learned from the result. Hearing stories about Edison and the light bulb or J. K. Rowling and her trials getting Harry Potter published are encouraging, but do not take away that fear of being proved wrong.
Bromford prefer not to talk about ‘wrong'. As soon as you mention the concept of blame you evoke the idea, so they talk about ‘wobbly wheels'. Think of a supermarket trolley with those awful wheels - it is hard to keep them on track, they do not stop you doing your shopping, but they certainly do not help, and life is easier when they have been sorted out. Mistakes at Bromford are seen in this light - a wobbly wheel that needs to be attended to if we are to do our best work.
Bob Henry at CORGI does not speak of mistakes either, but ‘unexpected outcomes'.
We want people to take risks/be adventurous, not foolhardy, and we don't want them to be afraid of losing their job. It's OK if the outcome is unexpected - OK, but share it with others and look at what went on. If you repeat the behaviour and the outcome is the same, it's not unexpected any longer, and that's not acceptable - because you are not learning and we take a dim view of that. In that case we want to identify the development need that has to be addressed. Never start from the position that someone is setting out to do something wrong - why would they?
At Timpson it is very straightforward, according to James:
Loads of people will say ‘great idea' then never do it. We give everything a go, no matter how stupid it is. If it doesn't work, we put our hands up and say we've made a balls-up. When it does work, colleagues are asked to tell everyone about it so they can have a go themselves.
And so some great ideas are born.
Mistakes haunt people - their memory lingers well after the delights of a success. The temptation to hide them away can be compelling, pretending they never happened or hoping they will go away. Wragge have a mechanism for addressing this - Mental Block Day. Screen savers herald its arrival and encourage everyone to bring out their‘monster' files - the ones that sit at the bottom of the heap in the hope they will disappear from sight. Equally, when change was rife, taking the firm from its traditional legal style to the more individual style of ‘Wragge, the great company', those who lagged behind were offered a‘dinosaur amnesty'. The senior partner came into work on Saturday to meet those who wanted to talk through the changes and their concerns, in the hope of both learning from them and bringing them on board.
Rather than thinking of mistakes, see different reactions or outcomes that contain valuable learning. It is questionable whether it is possible to create anything new unless it fails first. Could Honda produce such customer- and environmentally-friendly cars if they did not understand what does not work? Robert Hiscox, having worked for 40 years in the insurance business, has seen many ideas come and go - and come back again. He knows people have to give their ideas a try, even when they did not work before. This may just be the time it goes right or be the time to take the learning from it to move forward more effectively. His task is to hold off from saying that he had ‘told them so' and to support their learning. No company can do without its mistakes.
‘That could have gone horribly wrong - it's a big risk to put people into new roles unless you know they will be good enough.'
To quote Voltaire: ‘Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.'
It is great if you can be certain of an outcome, but that is not real- istic in change. It all hinges on how you view mistakes. If you want a company to grow and develop, you need the courage to get out there - and if you do that, there will be times when you fail. It is inevitable - unless you are Superman. Unless you risk failure you are not changing - and not to change in this fast-paced world is the real risk. Standing still is the kiss of death.
Fear of mistakes is often to do with hierarchy and power. Mindsets about being right, pleasing people and not showing yourself up, stop action - better to be safe than sorry. Great companies change the mindset because they understand the limitation it creates. They want colleagues to seek out changes that benefit the business; they encourage people to learn from what works and does not work and to celebrate success as well as useful failure.
Choose one action you are personally avoiding through fear of failure:
Make an honest appraisal of the likely outcomes and the risks involved. Include the cost of not trying.
Consider what is the worst that can happen and make a judgement - do the benefits outweigh the risks? If the answer is ‘No', begin again with another action you have on hold.
Work out a plan of action, including ways of supporting yourself - for example, talk to your boss and get agreement for your plan.
Identify clear success factors - include unexpected outcomes that bring interesting learning.
Celebrate your success with colleagues and share your learning.
Choose one action that your team are avoiding through fear of failure:
Get the team together and work out a plan that provides optimum support for those taking the risk. Include clear measurements, timelines and checkpoints.
Make it clear that you will not penalise failure - everyone will be concerned that you will react in a negative way if it does not work.
If you need to, talk your own boss through the plan and get support for your actions.
Let your agreed definition of success be the agreed outcome, a better outcome, or learning for the future.
Celebrate the success you gain in a way that includes everyone involved.