Score ‘a’ for Failure

A visit to an Ivy League college to attend the graduation of his son bore an unexpected dividend for one of our agents. He was so taken by one of the speakers, mathematics professor, that he approached him afterwards about writing book. It was, I said, an excellent example of maximising the yield on one’s time.
“Yes, but there’s more,” he said. “Listen to how this professor grades his final exam and tell me what you think.”
The professor had grown concerned several years ago by tendency towards excessive caution displayed by students in his classes. Many of the students, even top ones, wouldn’t risk approaching problem on the blackboard without set solution in mind. “If they didn’t already know how it would turn out, they didn’t want to try,” he said.
“That certainly sounds familiar,” I said. The willingness to try is basic requirement for doing business, just as it is for mathematics. The professor decided to conduct his own experiment in whetting student appetites for taking intellectual risks. On the last portion of the final exam for his class, he posed problem and announced that 10 percent of the grade would be based on failure.
When his students clamoured for an explanation he said; “I’m going to look at the quality of your imagination, your willingness to explore fresh approaches, whether or not you systematise your search – everything but whether you get the answer right. In fact, I’m not going to give any points for correct answer.”
The professor smiled. “To succeed in this test, you must get an for failure.”
I thought both the professor’s concerns and solution were apt. Businesses are by definition in state of dynamic tension, torn between safe management decisions and the need to seek new opportunities. The eternal problem is how to inculcate the spirit of smart risk-taking. Too many executives wait for sure thing to come along, because they know their advancement depends on hitting only bull’s eyes. In the meantime, in order to avoid being assigned the harder-to-hit objectives, they get good at smothering initiatives in analysis. If that’s the kind of behaviour your company rewards, then you have problem.
A company that’s staffed with risk-averse employees may run along quite well for good period of time, but it’s like an ocean liner set on course for the North Pole: the sailing is smooth in the temperate zones but once you’re in iceberg territory, look out. The first bump you feel may be fatal.
How do you know if people at your company are playing it too safe? Without consulting anybody or any files, jot down list of recent initiatives that have failed. If it’s short list, ask yourself why.
One reason may be that there simply aren’t many initiatives that get the green light. If this is the case, it’s time to consider instituting an “A for Failure” programme of your own. Ask every executive to submit list of exploratory ventures they are prepared to back and couple of ideas that show promise but have unpredictable outcomes.
Have you not heard about the failures because bad news in your company only trickles down, not up? If so, you have communications-risk problem. When top executive doesn’t know what has been tried and what has failed, on whose watch it occurred, and why – he or she’s not learning anything that will help them make future decisions. And it robs you of the best yardstick by which to measure your employees.
The trouble here may lie within yourself, or your circle of lieutenants. Perhaps they are insulating you from your company’s vital signs. Ask yourself if perhaps you have tendency to “kill the messenger”, or punish failure reflexively, without bothering to know why and how it occurred. Whichever is the case, appoint time and place to regularly review failures, with the emphasis on learning. (One tip: when it’s someone’s turn to discuss his or her failure, make sure you publicly reward them with your approval.)
Check the expense account records of your sales, marketing and technical teams. It may seem counterintuitive, but if they aren’t going out enough, or are seeing the same people too often, then how can they expect to stumble across new and unexpected information?
When hiring, be sure to examine resumes for hints of failures. You can expect them to be underplayed; that’s perfectly understandable. In your interviews, ask the candidate for an analysis of the situation, and what was learned from it. Then ask how the lessons were put to use in later success.
And, finally, don’t overlook your own resume. If there aren’t any big bombs there ask yourself why.

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management

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