Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Look for the lessons - even when you succeed

In my last posting (Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success) I described how success can lead to failure as individuals and organisations fail to learn as a direct result of their success.

As individuals we hold certain theories, models, principles and beliefs that guide our actions and our decision-making.

Sometimes these theories are quite sophisticated and rooted in science and in other cases they are pretty informal.

Learning is the process of updating our theories. We will typically challenge our assumptions, models and theories when something has gone wrong.

Failure provides a motivation for individuals (and organisations) to learn. This has been true from the time we first tried to walk or ride a bicycle. We fall down, it hurts and we try another approach.

An amazing number of high ranking executives report that early failures in their careers taught them lessons that ultimately led to their success. Without failure to provide the challenge, we need to challenge ourselves.

Here are five ways in which an organisation can learn from success:
  1. Celebrate success but examine it - when a win is achieved, the organisation needs to investigate what led to it with the same rigour and scrutiny it might apply to understanding the causes of failure. This may be an uncomfortable process and it may reveal tha a company’s major success was due to good luk rather than good judgement. 
  2. Institute systematic project reviews – Pixar, which has had 11 hit animated films in a row, conducts rigorous reviews of its production process. It religiously collects data about all aspects of a production and uses this to “stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions”. Staff don’t like doing them and would prefer to celebrate a film’s success, but Ed Catmull, Pixar President, sees the benefit of not becoming complacent. 
  3. Use the right time horizons – In industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, the development and feedback timeframe is long. It is critical to keep the appropriate time frame in mind when reviewing performance rather than focus on recent events. 
  4. Apply the root causes of the success – replicating success is important but that does not mean creating a check list of all the things to do the same way the next time. Break down each process into “something we can directly control” and “something that is affected by external factors” and study those elements under direct control using such tools as Six Sigma. 
  5. If it ain’t broke, experiment – in scientific research and in engineering, designs are subjected to ever more rigorous tests until the thing they are designing actually breaks. Organisational experiments can be conducted to push boundaries, provided the cost and impact are managed. 
The path to effective learning involves simple but counter-intuitive steps: Managers must actively test their theories, even when they seem to be working and rigorously investigate the causes of both good and bad performance.

Ironically, understanding success can better prepare you to avoid failure.

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