How do you cultivate self-awareness?

Failure is far and away the best and most humbling experience, revisiting what went wrong and why. You rarely fail from a lack of effort; it’s more skill or not being open-minded and aware enough of what’s happening around you. Those moments of failure and course-correcting are the best ways of doing that. Again, it comes down to experience.

In terms of frameworks to harness the lessons of failure, are there any patterns or general approaches you’ve been exposed to that you value?

Yeah, the conversation around, “Fail often, fail fast.” Don’t start with a mindset of, “I’m going to fail.” That’s absolutely the wrong mindset. You want to start with a mindset of success and cultivate a culture where failure is okay and expected.

If you’re trying hard things, you will fail. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a child that is born and starts walking immediately and has not fallen over. Walking is a skill, and you have to learn how to do it. Before you learn how to do it, you’re going to fall over many times. If we also got discouraged by a child falling, most people wouldn’t walk. As a race, we’d stay crawling.

Organisations are the same. If you’ve got an environment where you can’t fail, you’re going to build a crawling organisation, not one that can get on its feet, run, and keep developing. Thinking about these organisations that create this fear of failure — you’re holding your people down, keeping them on their hands and knees. Don’t be surprised if they don’t move very fast.

Again, it’s down to protection. If people feel safe, they’ll take risks. Not company risks. You don’t want to take too many of those. What you’re doing is taking measured risks. Then you can reinvest, and when you see things are working, dial it up a little bit and say, “Okay, at five per cent, this is working — what about fifteen per cent? This is still working. What about twenty-five per cent, thirty per cent?” Don’t always go straight to a hundred and realise, “Oh, wait a minute, we just bankrupted the company.” That’s the bad form of risk.

How do you make people feel safe?

It’s very easy to create a blame culture. “What went wrong? Who made the mistake? Why did you do that?” When you start asking people why, they’ll just make something up because they feel obliged to give the why. What’s more interesting is understanding the situation, the things you did, and the inputs that didn’t deliver the output you were expecting.

Did you do all the right things, and therefore, the output just wasn’t as expected? Are there different things we can try? If you start with the principle that people are trying to achieve success, and you work on the belief of human nature, that people are trying to do things well, you go back to, “They tried to succeed; these are all the things they tried.” Either the timing was just wrong, or they missed one or two pieces in there. And then, what did you do to help them? Did you give them the skills, the support, the time, the right environment?

The starting point as a leader is, “What was my role in their failure?” Did they have the right equipment? Everything to do with the environment. Were they well-rested? Were they getting distracted by emails at 11 p.m. that weren’t relevant to the thing they were doing? Did you create that environment for them to succeed? When you start with yourself and your environment, you’re more forgiving of the outcome. Again, it’s back to, “Okay, it’s not the individual.” They didn’t go from being great to then fail. Something probably went wrong in the process.

There’s a quote I just came across from Robert Greenleaf who writes a book called Servant Leadership. He talks about the great leader looking at their own responsibility with respect for the problem first before looking at anyone else.

Yeah. It’s very true. You’re the senior person, the person creating the environment, the person supporting and managing prioritisations. If something fails, you have to start with yourself, where you say, “Have I done everything to give this person, this group of people, this organisation the best chance of success?” That’s where it has to start.

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