True Leaders Value Mistakes

It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.

Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:

“Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.

Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.

When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.

In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.

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Leadership Lessons

Don’t kid yourselves. If you haven’t realized that knowledge management is about leadership, you’re in the wrong business. It takes leadership to analyze and implement system reforms. It takes leadership to achieve behavioral and cultural change. It takes leadership to get all of this done when your colleagues aren’t entirely sure they know what it is you do for a living.

Leadership is a huge topic in the business press and gets scrutinized regularly. Much of what we read is not terribly deep, although occasionally someone publishes an insight that can help broaden our view. Often we are distracted by the razzle dazzle of celebrity CEOs whose personal flair (and adoring press) tend to obscure the basic fact that at the end of the day the core components of leadership remain remarkably consistent over time. — regardless of personality.

In “Driving Lessons,” Knowledge @ Wharton interviews Dr. Dieter Zetsche about lessons learned while with Chrysler. In the article he talks about his experiences running and then selling the company. What emerges is a summary of those core components of leadership:

1. Competence

In Zetsche’s experience, “if your people sense you are not prepared or don’t have the right stuff to get the job done, you’re in trouble. Even if they don’t like your personality, they will respect your ability.” He then discussed how basic competence is the building block to creating a sense of common purpose that helps colleagues tackle change. “`As a leader, you have to be consistent in implementing the program and making very clear that sitting out is not an option,’ said Zetsche. Good leaders make change and common goals part of the corporate culture. `The key for any leader is to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page and understands where he or she is going….'” For knowledge managers, getting everyone on the same page is a huge challenge. Having a reputation for competence will help win both the support of management and the cooperation of your colleagues. And, this support and cooperation are necessary for most KM initiatives.

2. Responsibility

With respect to taking responsibility, Zetsche referred to the famous sign on President Truman’s desk: The Buck Stops Here. For Zetsche, “[t]hat remains a simple and powerful statement about the responsibilities of leadership. As a leader, you simply can’t pass tough decisions up and down the line and neither can the people in the organization.” Finding a business leader who actually walks the walk is a rare thing. It’s far too common to work with people who are happy to claim the credit when things go well, but then point fingers when a problem arises. Given the nature of KM, knowledge managers often end up as de facto risk managers, quality control officers, professional trainers, chief cooks and bottle washers. With this comes huge opportunities and commensurate responsibilities. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is for knowledge workers to have a clear understanding for which buck stops here. We rarely have the wherewithal to be responsible for the entire firm. Once you and your firm are clear about the scope of your responsibilities, then you know which buck stops with you.

3. Authenticity

On the subject of authenticity, Zetsche notes, “`[y]ou have to be the real deal.’ Don’t pretend to be John Wayne if that description doesn’t fit you. `And if you are John Wayne, don’t pretend to be Woody Allen. If you try to be someone you are not, the analysts and the media will see right through it.'” And, perhaps more frequently, your colleagues will see right through it. In the context of knowledge management, this means having clarity about who you are and what you are supposed to be doing. It is very hard to get colleagues to do things they would not otherwise do if they aren’t sure who you and what you stand for. A lack of authenticity leads to a lack of trust. And trust is critical if you are trying to bring about lasting change.

Leadership and knowledge management are inextricably entwined. While great leaders may be born not made, none of us is incapable of developing competence, responsibility and authenticity. It all starts with a good faith effort in the right direction.

[Disclosures: (1) The Knowledge@Wharton article may require a password, but registration is free. (2) My firm has had the privilege of working with Chrysler for many years. (3) I’m posting this using the mail to blogger functionality — let’s see what happens…]

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