Failure must be an option

love-mlm-failure-010A few days ago, I read a quick article about what – outside of passion – defines a great leader. According to LB Adams, the number one trait that great leaders should possess is the willingness to fail. At TELUS, risk and innovation are part of our DNA and as a result, we prepare for and react quickly when we aim high and come up short.

As I talk to more and more organizations, I realize that TELUS team members are very fortunate and in most cases failure is not an acceptable outcome. Imagine working for an organization where employees rejected learning opportunities and any career development that involved testing of any sort because they were afraid how their managers would react if they failed the associated quiz?

If an employee is scared to even register for training, how could they ever feel comfortable suggesting changes to products or process? Even scarier is to realize that if an employee was afraid to share an idea or push free from routine, over time it will be harder to help them feel inspired to come to work every day.

If you look at any organization’s values, chances are you will see some sort of variation of innovation standing arm in arm with respect, communication, respect, quality and integrity. It’s great to have these example on the wall of your boardroom, but how can you push innovation if mistakes and failure are deemed unacceptable?

How does fear impact team culture? Immensely. Optimism is hard to find in most orgs. For every energetic, glass half-full employee you meet, you will find at least one that always thinks the worst. How many times have you heard statements like, “that won’t work” or “our people won’t buy into that” the minute an idea is thrown out for evaluation?

In the last four years, we’ve been forced to trust each other and test the resolve of our team members. Was everything perfect? Did we hit a home run every time we stepped to the plate? Of course not, and looking back it was those failures that helped make huge strides as we shifted direction. Originally, we developed a strategy and deployed it to the organization. We saw good success and were thrilled with the organic growth we saw across pockets of the org, but when we were forced to dig deeper, we also saw opportunities for improvement.

Even with high adoption rates and dramatic increase in usage, we made some tactical errors, none bigger than the decision to roll out independent channels for social learning and collaboration. We were so happy to be able to provide a complete suite of independent tools – micro-blogging, video sharing, document collaboration, coaching, mentoring, subject-matter expertise and personal profiles – that we overlooked the fact we were creating new silos of information. We built tools internally, leveraged existing technology and purchased new tools that didn’t integrate seamlessly with what we had. We opted for a phased approach to help ease team members into the collaboration space, which ultimately led to increased demands for training and siloed collaboration.

In a recent interview,  Shawn Price (President for Global Cloud and Line of Business at SAP) mentioned that these individual channels were like ghost towns. At TELUS, they were more like club memberships. We had high traffic and collaboration – this infographic is a great place to see how collaboration increased over the last few years – but users opted for the the technology that best suited their comfort level. If I was trying to force a golf metaphor here, our users didn’t play other courses.

The more we analyzed our collaboration metrics, the more obvious it was that if an employee understood how to create a video and share it internally, most likely they continued create and consume that type of content. There was no proof that they also explored skills sharing, micro-blogging or blogs and wikis. People tend to stick with technology and processes they understand and we unintentionally facilitated that behavior.

When we made the decision to consolidate our social tools into a singular collaborative platform – SAP Jam – we started to realize that our success hid some of the failure. We encountered territorial users, unwilling to learn new technologies. We encountered users that demanded specific features instead of adapting to new, more robust set of tools that provided more collaborative options. We realized that our collaboration data, in a consolidated form, was a success story, but we were actually promoting a strategy that created segregated audiences. We had to build migration training/strategies. We had to rework communication plans.

What this meant was we needed to re-evaluate our adoption and learning strategies and ask the business and the leadership team for patience and support. In certain organizations, we would have encountered resistance. “Didn’t we just try this?” “Why should we invest more resources in something that is already in place?” There was no talk of ROI and no skepticism that we could get it right and improve on the successes of which we were so proud.

we were able to present a plan that highlighted where we succeeded, but focused more on where we went wrong. We didn’t try to cover up gaps. We readily identified them as areas we knew we missed and would win over. Our assumptions about adoption were proven wrong over time, and as a result, we were able to come up with a better launch and adoption plan for the release of Jam.

What does this mean? Well, in less than a year, 75% of the organization has accessed our collaboration platform. We’ve been able to consolidate tools without losing the support of our user communities. We’ve lowered the TCO and required support resources. We also created a better, more targeted set of learning materials based on the metrics we tracked from our other tools and how existing learning was consumed.

We are early on in our deployment; the first year is often heavily based on communication, transition and migration but our failures have helped us determine a plan that will hopefully turn a good story into a great one.

It’s easy to tell someone to roll out a consolidated, integrated solution. It’s more realistic to prepare for small wins and failure while you move towards your ideal end state (the utopia where tools that talk to each other, users that are participative and happy, and leadership that supports the project). In most cases, that dream state is not possible – we all fight for every dollar and every successful adoption story. But if your leaders let employees be pragmatic and learn from each incremental step, you will get there.

By letting your organization know that it’s okay to fail and move forward, you will develop resilient workers that take that core value on innovation off the boardroom wall and truly live it every day.

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