posted 25 Aug 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 10
One for the lexophiles
Helen Nicol provides a storybased approach to learning from failure
Atychiphobia is a word you rarely hear, but a behaviour you see in almost every organisation. It means the fear of failure.
Fear of failure at a personal level can be debilitating. It can prevent us from doing the very things that result in our success. As I walked onto the stage to present at the recent KMUK 2010 event, I knew exactly how that felt. I wanted to run screaming from the building; to deny all knowledge of ever saying I would speak. I wanted to lock myself in the toilet, rather than to mount that stage and have everyone think me a total idiot. And that’s just fear of failure at a personal level. At an organisational level, it leads to extreme risk aversion and even organisational paralysis. It is exacerbated by the way we are performance managed – rewarded for our successes, not for learning from our mistakes. Fear of failure is quite possibly the single greatest inhibitor of innovation. But according to researchers at the
Lessons not learned
A basic premise of knowledge management (KM) is that the ability to learn from previous experience will enable us to avoid repeating mistakes, more effectively manage risk and in the long term, improve our practice. In reality the history of KM is littered with stories of expensive, but completely ineffective, attempts to develop all encompassing knowledge databases full of highly structured, formal lessons learned reports – which are so diluted as to lose all context, emotion and relevance to the reader. As Dave Snowden points out, attempts to codify lessons into highly structured documents work against the way we naturally process information. He argues that we have evolved to handle information that is unstructured, so that “conversation and connections will always trump codification”.
Freed from the constraints of the formal, structured and codified approaches to sharing lessons learned, stories convey complex meaning, elicit emotional reactions and encourage conversation in a way that bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentations do not.
The story: A tool for learning
Throughout history, storytelling has been used in every culture as a tool for learning. Religious parables, myths, legends and fables are all designed to disseminate ideas, ways of being, cultural norms, wisdom and learning. When I designed my KMUK session around the telling of stories, I was tapping into this natural learning tool, to create a connection in the minds of the audience to their own experiences, their beliefs, values and assumptions. Rather than passively listening to another presentation, I wanted to get people thinking, sharing and learning from one another’s failures.
So I told a few short stories, then asked the audience to discuss what they got from them. That was it. I didn’t explain what happened next, I didn’t structure the discussion and I didn’t use PowerPoint slides. I just asked people to listen to the stories, then talk about whatever sprang to mind. From the feedback I received, the delegates’ own stories – of a very personal, very real and very powerful nature – emerged as a result.
I used composite stories, written using elements from my experiences in different roles and in different situations, from the perspective of the people affected by the KM efforts I’ve been involved with. At their heart were real comments from real people. Below is one of the short stories I used for the session. I’m no Alan Bennett, but you’ll get the idea.
On social media
“There’s this new system, TalkSite or something, which the centre has introduced to ‘help improve knowledge sharing’ or something. It’s just like that stupid Twitter thing that my nephew keeps going on about. Any staff member can say anything they like on it, about anything. It’s not even moderated. I can’t believe they’ve allowed it. I mean, if someone wants to know something they can ask their line manager – they even get time at the beginning and end of their shifts to do it.
What I want to know is, what happens if someone tells them the wrong way to do something? We’ll have a million different ways of doing everything, none of them following procedure, we’ll be in a right mess. I went on it the other day, and they were telling jokes and saying what they’d had for lunch – how is that work related? What if the press got hold of it? In can just see the headlines ‘3000 civil servants discuss their dinner plans online’. They’d have a field day!
One of our staff told me he’d discovered a major error in the new processing rules the other day – says he must have saved us thousands of pounds by telling everyone on this Talk thing – I think he was just trying to stop me banning it to be honest. It’s a real worry, I’d rather see it closed down.”
Encouraging the acknowledgement of failure is a step in the right direction, but sustainable change requires purpose, along with a balance of people, process and technological elements. In the above example, this has not been the case. However, it was successful in the invention of the black box recorder.
The black (actually orange) box
In 1956, Dr David Warren, who had lost his father in a plane crash 20 years earlier, created a prototype black box, which was capable of storing four hours of voice recording and instrument readings. The Royal Australian Airforce dismissed it as being likely to “yield more expletives than explanations”. It was several years before the idea was recognised as a good one and devices fitted to Australian aircraft.
As part of normal flight procedure, the black boxgathers data and information from the aircraft and voice recordings from the cockpit – data fragments from which meaning can be derived. Originally rejected, the black box recorder is now mandatory for all aircraft and is considered to have made an invaluable contribution to world air travel safety.
Looking through the lens of narrative, the voice recordings are of particular interest. They tell a story using dialogue just like a play or TV drama. From these conversations, we are able to infer the events that are unfolding; creating meaning from what we hear. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes how the analysis of voice recordings from black box recorders has shown that the concept of mitigated speech, where a desire to be polite leads us to downplay the meaning of what is being said, has helped identify the cause of the most anomalous plane crashes.
There are three key points here. The first is that the intent behind the interpretation of black box data is to learn from failure. The second is that the inclusion of voice recording is invaluable for creating the ‘story’ of what went on. The third, and perhaps most important point, is that the initial negative reaction of the aviation industry to examining failure was changed. And it was altered to the extent that the information about failures and their causes derived from the black box is now so highly valued that the analysis, interpretation and application of the associated findings is fully embedded in the way the industry functions.
Through the use of data and information captured in situ, the aviation industry has slowly but steadily adopted a culture that learns from failure; a change which has saved many lives.
While we may not all be in the position to save lives through our actions, we can consider the impact that an organisational black box might have on our ability to interpret, accept and learn from our mistakes. Consider, for instance, a customer complaint. Might studying narrative customer insight, alongside data and information on the functional processes in the organisation help identify the causes of the complaint? Would this help to break down the fear of failure in our organisations? I don’t know. What I do know is that my organisational black box would feature lights that flashed and sirens that wailed every time the words ‘it’s a good idea, but...’ were recorded.
Helen Nicol is head of knowledge management at the Department for Work and Pensions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org