Business leaders learning from ‘stuff ups’

In response to an earlier post, Caroline Heider asked the million-dollar question:

How does one develop .. a culture [of reflective or evaluative thinking] when it is not intrinsic or when incentives exist to share information only about success/the positive (real or the “nicer message”) and fear to speak about things that may not have gone right? Or when critique is automatically exercised or perceived as personal rather than a reflection on a situation, events, or things?

Drawing on some lessons from the organizational change literature, i.e. what works for changing organizational culture, one of the key factors is top leaders talking openly about and reflecting on failure and what they learned from it.

This snippet is from a documentary called Stuff Ups, where eight New Zealand business leaders talk about the biggest mistakes they have ever made and how they learned from them. [Readers on the email and RSS feeds will need to go to the online version of the post to view it.]

What other ideas can we draw from the literature on organizational culture change? Here are ten tips drawn from a keynote I did earlier this year on how to build a learning organization:

  1. Get top management commitment to learning from failure – and make it highly visible (walk, not just talk!)
  2. Identify and work with ‘evaluation evangelists’ – influential people who will help lead the change
  3. Communicate the ‘evaluation imperative’ – explain clearly why this is a powerful and exciting new way of doing things
  4. Train/coach people in evaluation skills, knowledge & know-how; develop tools together
  5. Provide diverse exemplars of great evaluative inquiry, reflection & use – people need to know what good evaluation and learning looks like in practice
  6. Model the importance of external criticism (especially for senior management)
  7. Develop and empower (and/or, hire in) a critical mass of people with the “evaluative attitude”
  8. Listen to skeptics & cynics; allow powerful change blockers the chance to move aside
  9. Recognize and reward changed behaviors & mindset
  10. Highlight & celebrate good examples of ‘learning from disappointing results’ – and using those learnings to make timely improvements

I think one of the key reasons why we see little success in building evaluative and reflective thinking in organizations is because too often it is seen as a ‘people-change’ challenge (targetting individuals, and blaming them when it doesn’t happen) rather than a whole-organization culture change challenge (i.e. a leadership responsibility to create and build energy behind a genuine transformation).

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