How can we create a culture that rewards honesty and learns from failure?

What's the problem?

Alt text Our society is complex. We cannot control and predict all aspects of behaviour. And yet we tend to frown upon the manager or leader who admits to failure, or that they cannot control outcomes.

Too often we replace such honesty with managers who pretend they have all the answers and control. The problem with this is that such an aversion to risk or failure, exacerbated by the political processes, prevents learning.

Learning (action, evaluation, reflection and adaptation) is how people and organisations improve themselves and their approach to complex challenges that lack predictability – like so many in our world today.

Instead of encouraging learning, we risk creating a “blame culture” that inhibits the telling of the truth about what actually works. When something goes wrong, the community often calls for accountability but in fact really just wants to find someone to blame and punish.

The first problem with “blame culture” is that it drives underground the very people with knowledge of what went wrong. The second problem is that individuals and organisations outside government may not look to themselves to build the society they want.

The challenge here is not about just letting people fail, but to create a culture that rewards honesty and learning from failure. If we accept that we need to constantly adapt and improve, then we must create the space for real time feedback and continuous learning, even by those in the public eye.

Seven things you need to know

  • Fear of failure can be transmitted from parents to their children.

  • The scientist Albert Michelson won a Nobel Prize for failing. In the 1880s, he tried to find the carrier of light. He couldn’t, because it didn’t exist. He’d inadvertently discovered that light carries itself, though it would Albert Einstein to explain it. The short version: E = mc2.

  • Several scientific journals now specialize in publishing failed experiments, including the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine and the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis.

  • The first product manufactured by Sony, shortly after World War II, was an electric rice cooker. It didn’t work so they tried something else - a tape recorder.

  • Henry Ford had good and bad ideas. A bad one was creating Fordlandia in the Amazon Rainforest. It included a 2.5 million-acre rubber plantation intended to supply the automobile industry. The project was a total failure.

  • Small businesses feel the bit of failure all too often. For Australian small businesses (without employees, which is the majority of small business) that started during 2007/08, only 43 per cent were still operating in June 2011.

  • However, many entrepreneurs don’t stay defeated. Research in 2012 found that, for those that terminated their business within the first 3 years, only 6% rated their experience as negative. Around 29 per cent would probably attempt a start-up again, while 53 per cent would definitely engage in a start-up in the future, if faced with the right opportunity.

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