Monday, December 31, 2012

Eight 2012 posts you might have missed

As we wrap up the year, here are a few posts that struck me as notable from the past 12 months.

Paul Downs: if you don't understand why a boss wouldn't give up, don't start your own company (June 19)

Steven Johnson: "We have a tendency to dismiss error" when we shouldn't (June 27)

A good model can be useful even when it fails (October 29)

"Wrong thinking" is a key part of imagination (June 26)

Jay Goltz - lessons from hiring & firing 8 production managers (May 17)

Mistake stories come alive when we discuss them (April 17)

Peyton Manning going to Denver: "I have to go from now and make it the right decision" (March 22). Of course, he did make it the right decision. Denver is the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

A thought on due diligence (February 9)

Have a great 2013 and keep making productive mistakes!

"It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain"

"It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain."

Nobel-Prize-winning researcher Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, from her autobiography as quoted in the New York Times. Dr. Levi-Montalcini died last week at age 103.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"We must learn to love uncertainty and failure"

This is from the 15 Jan 2011 edition of the Guardian. Not brand-new, but the message is still current:

"We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers"

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people's lives, according to some of the world's leading thinkers.

The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

The magazine called for "shorthand abstractions" – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Hat tip to David Cancel.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A misunderstanding redirects a career

Mistakes can take you to new places. That's a theme of the upcoming Mistake Bank book, and it was underlined in a New York Times interview of Blair LaCorte, CEO of XOJets, an executive jet airliner. LaCorte explained how he first got into high tech:

My dad had advised me to work for people I wanted to learn from. I always remembered Eric Herr, who had been a managing partner at the Michael Allen Company, a consulting firm where I had worked one summer in business school. I contacted him and he mentioned a position at Sun, which I assumed meant Sun Oil. I told him I'd take it, that I trusted him and that I didn't need to know any more. I told my friends I was taking a leave from consulting to work at Sun Oil for a year. When the offer letter arrived, however, it was from Sun Microsystems.

That misunderstanding changed my life. For the next 12 years, I worked at a variety of technology companies. I loved the innovation in this industry; merging my business skills with colleagues' technical skills allowed us to move very quickly.

Another idea is proved in this story: always take your dad's advice.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mistake Bank book cover image

Hi, all, I wanted to share this very cool cover that Michael Morris has designed for the book. I'm sure it will evolve as we get toward final publication, but it looks great already. Thanks Michael!

Keep your eyes peeled for a Kickstarter campaign kicking off after the New Year. Pass the word!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Carol Bartz on what you can learn from a bad boss, and watch out for that flying tissue box!

Having a lousy boss is one of the most unpleasant experiences possible in the workplace. Is it possible, though, that there is a silver lining in having a bad boss? Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo and Autodesk, thinks so. In the way that "mistakes make deep imprints," your experiences with a bad boss can help you learn what not to do when you rise to that level yourself. Bartz described her experiences at an event at Wharton's San Francisco Campus. They were summarized in an article in Knowledge@Wharton:

While universally despised, the dreaded bad boss, said Bartz, can teach his or her unfortunate employees a great deal. "Think about the good bosses you had. You remember that they're good, but you don't know exactly why. But with a bad boss, you remember every detail about whatever [he or she] did. You really have it in sharp focus. Not that you should run off and be bad managers, but we often can be shaped more by some of the negative things that happen in our lives, like a bad boss. And of course I have a little bit of Silicon Valley in me, which says, 'A bad boss will soon move on to be somebody else's bad boss, so just wait him out.' But if you happen to be in a business where they wait around for 10 years, then maybe you've got to move out first."

Being assigned to a bad boss may not be your mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless, so you might as well learn from it. And keep your poise, like this woman in a NY Times piece by Phyllis Korkki:

Noreen P. Denihan is an executive assistant who sees her job as managing the life of her boss, Donald J. Gogel, chief executive of the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. As such, she has no problem taking care of some of his personal responsibilities.

Ms. Denihan has been an assistant since 1976 and can remember, in one of her previous workplaces, when someone threw a box of tissues at her because the type she had bought would irritate his nose.

“The box hit the floor and I just stepped over it” as if nothing had happened, she said.

When people fly off the handle in my presence, I tell myself that it's because of their own issues and struggles, rather than anything I did. I tell myself that, but I still get offended and angry. I wish I had Noreen Denihan's equanimity. She is a rock star.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#1 Employee fear? Making a mistake

There comes a time, when you've been writing about learning from mistakes for five years or so, when you think the message must have gotten through - when mistakes happen, they are often due to process or business complexities or miscommunication rather than incompetence or carelessness. Acknowledging and sharing them are essential tools to drive learning and improvement in the organization as a whole. They should not be hidden, or fixed quietly. In short, they are not to be dreaded.

Then reality strikes. HR consulting company Robert Half International surveyed employees to assess the primary fears in the workplace. "Making errors on the job" was the #1 response, cited by 28% of the respondents.

Which just goes to show how much work we have left to do. Bosses, you need to change this situation. Can you please read some of the top books of 2011 and 2012 on this topic? Or read this excerpt from the Mistake Bank book and order a copy when it is published after the New Year? Thank you.

[Hat tip to David K. Williams and Mary Michelle Scott for pointing out the survey.]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

For nonprofits, sharing stories of failure reduces their potency

Many nonprofits struggle with difficulties in mission, fundraising and viability, and other issues. So failure is familiar in this sector. Recently Sarika Bansal of the New York Times wrote about how nonprofits deal with failure in the newspaper's Opinionator blog. Bansal writes:

Seven years ago, the consulting group Bridgespan presented details on the performance of several prestigious nonprofits. Nearly all of them had one thing in common — failure. These organizations had a point at which they struggled financially, stalled on a project or experienced high rates of attrition. “Everyone in the room had the same response, which was relief,” said Paul Schmitz, the chief executive of the nonprofit Public Allies. “It was good to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling with these things.”

And the following is two good reasons why hiding failure is counterproductive:

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it,” said Jill Vialet, who runs the nonprofit Playworks. “It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.” Vialet instead supports failing “out loud” and “forward,” meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.

Finally, Bansal points to a website that collects failure stories submitted by nonprofits (we love these sites!):

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"You look for one thing and find something else"

"That's the way it goes sometimes: you look for one thing and find something else." Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote, Vol 1, chapter 16

From the Burton Raffel English translation of "Don Quixote."

This echoes the Ira Glass - via Kathryn Schulz - definition of a story (and one of the ways to view a mistake that I emphasize in the upcoming Mistake Bank book).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Don Quixote: "In every disaster, fortune always leaves a door ajar"

"In every disaster, fortune always leaves a door ajar."

Don Quixote, Vol 1, chapter 15

For the past few years, I've picked out a long classic novel to read as the days grow short. Last year it was "Anna Karenina" (one of my top books of 2012). And this year it's the Burton Raffel English translation of "Don Quixote."

And now, after so many years have passed since first reading, Cervantes seems to be writing about the power of mistakes and delusions. The above quote underlines that point.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Best Books of the Year 2012

These are the best books I've read this year concerning human error, making mistakes and learning from them. (They may have been published in prior years.)

1. "Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy," Amy Edmondson. The preeminent researcher on organizational learning and development sums up her 20-year career in this book. It covers teamwork, collaboration and leadership, and is more full of common sense than a shelfload of self-help books. Money quote: "Facing the potential for larger failure when smaller failures interact, leaders in complex organizations must promote resiliency by acknowledging that failure is inevitable, making it psychologically safe to report and discuss problems, and promoting habits of vigilance that support rapid detection and responsiveness."

2. "The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don't," Nate Silver. Almost a companion piece to Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which was on last year's list. Silver attacks misplaced self-confidence in human forecasting and shows us that by embracing uncertainty and weighing the odds, we are capable of making far better predictions than we usually do.

3. "From Lemons to Lemonade: Squeeze Every Last Drop of Success Out of Your Mistakes," Dean Shepherd. A researcher from Indiana University takes a personal-psychology viewpoint on the mistakes question. With very useful discussions on various ways to bounce back from mistakes, and why we feel so bad when we fail, this book has a prominent place in my "Mistake Learner's Bookshelf." Money quote: "Failure is not the opposite of success."

4. "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure," Tim Harford. Looking at human organizations as complex-adaptive systems, Harford shows many examples of groups finding success by responding to initial failure by adapting and learning; as well as an equal number of those who didn't adapt and failed utterly as a result. His views, coming from an economics background, and Amy Edmondson's, from an organizational development perspective, mesh nicely.

5. "Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you want to learn about human fallibility and the trouble it can cause, you can't do better than to consult the Russian masters. If "War and Peace" illustrated bureaucratic and organizational folly, this book does the same with social relations. And, did you hear there's a movie out?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Excerpt from "The Hard Way: A Book About Courageous Failure"

What follows is a brief excerpt of the book "The Hard Way: A Book About Courageous Failure," by Tuuti Piippo and Miika Peltola (original title: "Kantapään kautta"), which includes 15 in-depth interviews of Finnish top entrepreneurs, artists and leaders and their failure stories. It was translated from the original Finnish by Tuuti Piippo. We thank Tuuti and Miika for sharing this excerpt and look forward to the entire book being available in English soon!

There is no failure

Joanne was 21 and restless.

She wanted to write novels for a living, but her mother and father would not agree with the idea. They feared that the girl’s overflowing imagination would never pay for a house or a pension, no matter how amusing it might be.

The family settled for compromise. After graduating, Joanne would study languages instead of literature. She went to college and changed her major to Classics without telling her family.

Joanne was not afraid of being poor, like her parents who came from a background of poverty. She was afraid of failure. At the university, success meant excelling in exams. Joanne would rather sit in a cafe writing stories than attend lectures, but somehow managed to get through the exams.

Seven years after her graduation, Joanne’s marriage had just broken to pieces. Her mother had died unexpectedly. She was an unemployed single parent, depressed, with just enough money to stay off the street.

She was the worst failure she knew – her biggest fears, as well as those of her parents, had become a reality. Joanne felt like she was in a pitch black tunnel, but could not see the famous light at the end.

Her utter failure stripped down everything but the essential. Joanne finally stopped pretending and confessed to herself that she was a writer. So, she used all her energy to write out an idea she’d gotten.

She was still alive. It was a good start.

If Joanne had managed to hold one of her temporary jobs, succeeded even a little, she might not have found the determination to carry out her calling. The failure taught and revealed more willpower and self-discipline than any passed exam ever had. She took the insight and empowerment as a sign that she should keep trying.

Joanne wrote on her old typewriter in coffee shops. Every time her daughter fell asleep in her stroller, she would start typing like mad. When she had finished her first manuscript, she tucked the first three chapters in an envelope and sent them to an agent.

The envelope came back quickly with a reply: No, thanks.

On the second try, she found an agency that would start offering the manuscript to publishers. They declined one after another.

After one year and twelve rejections, Bloomsbury got interested. They offered Joanne a £1500 advance for the book. She accepted the offer, jumping and screaming from joy. The publisher made a first edition of one thousand copies.

The book was called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone" [in the US, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"]. Joanne is now better known as J. K. Rowling.

copyright Tuuti Piippo and Miika Peltola. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Never give up your right to be wrong"

I found this artfully-written note pinned to the bulletin board at the kids' workout room at the local YMCA:

It says:

Aim for success, not perfection.

Never give up your right to be wrong because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life.

Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can paradoxically make you a far happier and more productive person!!

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Growing past a microbusiness requires letting managers make mistakes

From the New York Times "You're The Boss" blog, Josh Patrick discusses how a business changes as it grows from a "microbusiness" - i.e., very small, to a "lower middle" business - one with more than $5 million in sales and more than two dozen employees. He describes his experience in growing his own vending machine business to that level:

The real change for me was learning how to manage. I couldn’t do it by brute force. I had to learn to set standards and then to inspect to make sure our standards were being met. My dashboard was part of the solution. The other part was providing face-to-face feedback and learning to hold others accountable.

That required learning to trust and to allow our managers to make mistakes. When we were a small company, mistakes weren’t O.K. They happened, but no one would admit they happened, least of all me. As we grew I had to learn to let others make decisions and then learn from their mistakes. The key was keeping the mistakes small enough that they didn’t sink the business. The better I got at allowing myself and others to learn from their mistakes, the better my company became.

In a small business, the owner makes every meaningful decision. Workers follow her direction. But as Patrick points out, by the time you approach the lower-middle size, there are simply too many decisions to make. Meaningful delegation is required. And, with that, the ability for people to mess up and learn from it. "Creating the Culture for Learning From Mistakes" is a chapter in the upcoming Mistake Bank book, and the process described here is part of that.