Entitled Using UX to change company culture, the presentation is focused on web design and the problems of being non-customer focused but, broadly, the same challenges and principles apply to becoming people focused. In the second half of the presentation, Joe offers three suggestions on “what to do” to change company culture; I’ve adopted and built upon these here.
1. Encourage empathy
First and foremost, to truly understand your organisation, you need to empathise with people: employees, customers, partners, suppliers, shareholders and more. Put yourself in their shoes and experience the organisation from their perspective. What works really well and where might there be frustrations? How does your experience of the organisation change when viewed from their standpoint?
Tools such as empathy mapping can help, as can stakeholder engagement. Even when you feel you have a good understanding of a given person’s experience, it is often helpful to ask individuals for their views. Matt and I frequently encourage stakeholder engagement in our client projects and find that sometimes the answers can be surprising. In any empathic exercise, be prepared to really listen, be open minded and put aside any preconceptions you may have. Not only does this foster greater honesty but it also ensures you see the situation as it really is.
In July 2003, IBM conducted what has become known as their Values Jam: a three-day discussion via the corporate intranet about the company’s values. To begin, the comments given by employees were “disturbingly dissonant” and 24 hours in, “at least one senior executive wanted to pull the plug.” Thankfully, Sam Palmisano, CEO at the time, wouldn’t hear of it. To have pulled the plug would have been to deny the reality of employee experience and to ignore valid criticism. Instead, Palmisano listened, empathised and immediately made changes. And it seems to have worked: during Palmisano’s tenure, IBM experienced 21% annual growth in earnings per share and increased its market capitalization to $218 billion.
2. Humanise your words and approach
Rather than focusing on targets, percentages, quotas and the numbers, take time to focus on people. In Playing for keeps (which largely inspired my previous article), Frederick Harmon gives the example of a sales manager’s performance appraisal. Typically such appraisals are focused on measuring performance against numbers but Harmon instead asks:
What if her boss went beyond the numbers? What if he asked her to think about which of her recurring acts had the most power to increase profit? What if he then asked her to find ways to add more value to the way she and her team carried out each of those critical acts? What if they worked out ways together to measure her progress? What if he then regularly reviewed that progress in addition to her numbers every month? Think of the impact on her performance.
In his presentation, Joe Leech also gives a brilliant example from Jack Dorsey (co-founder of both Twitter and Square) who, when asked by Square’s newest Director, Howard Schultz, “Why do you all call your customers ‘users‘?” honestly answered, “I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.” Jack then went on to write a letter to his team explaining that they would be removing the term ‘users’ from their vocabulary and that it should be replaced with ‘customers’ or the more specific ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’. He writes:
While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do.
Jack even goes so far as to end with, “If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140” (emphasis his).
3. Tell stories
Story telling is a powerful tool to humanise any aspect of your organisation. The quote from Playing for keepswith which I began my last article is a story. It’s a story about the individual acts that together influence next month’s financial statement.
Anecdotes are stories. The tales that are shared over coffee about the latest conversation with a supplier or the most recent email from a colleague can be surprisingly informative. They are also a great way to share your own experience and can provide unexpected business benefit.
In an HBR webinar, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland shared the example of the call center of a bank which, in an effort to minimise “wasted time,” introduced “non-overlapping coffee breaks” to limit “personal contact and ‘non-essential’ communication.” Rather than bringing benefit, this initiative instead had an adverse effect. Unexpectedly, Pentland’s research team were able to demonstrate that shared coffee breaks allowed employees to disseminate important information about their experiences, which, in turn, enabled staff to improve their performance. As a result, the bank reintroduced overlapping breaks and “saw improved call-handling time, which translated into $15 million per year of savings.” In Pentland’s words:
Informal communication and the exchange of tacit information and best practices proved more valuable than formal team meetings, rules, and incentives.
Stories can also be used with effect in other ways. For example, what does your annual state of the nation report look like? Is it a series of mind-numbing numbers: “Customer complaints have decreased by 20%. Competitors have gained 5% market share. In the next year, we will be increasing departmental efficiency by 16%”? How much more engaging would this presentation be if you instead told a series of stories to illustrate and explain?
In his presentation, Leech gives the example of telling a customer story. Stories are great for understanding your customers and really help you to engage with their needs and situation.
Simple stories (such as that illustrated by Leech) are a fantastic place to start but if you want to build a more detailed story, personas can enable a deeper understanding. Stories and personas provide you with a human reference point against which to answer questions such as, “Would this encourage Tony to buy?” or “Will Jill find this easy to use?”.
Since the dawn of man, stories have been a highly effective communication tool—they are easy to remember, evocative, descriptive and empathic. They bring a subject alive and ensure that you talk about real people and real life situations. Increasingly, stories are emerging as a management discipline and, for some, storytelling is seen as a key leadership competency for the 21st century.
Over to you
How could you further humanise your organisation? Your business is already its people but do you see it that way? Are you distracted by the numbers, stuck in a language rut or fearful of hearing what others really want to say?
I’ve offered three suggestions here but there will be many more approaches that you could take—I’m sure you’ll even have ideas of your own. Today, dare to open your eyes and to really see the people around you. Who knows what you’ll find—you may just uncover the true source of your organisation’s potential.
Picture in your mind a large, American manufacturing company. Here is their story…
[A group of experienced] managers sit in [a] meeting. Out on the plant floor, production on the new line stopped more than an hour ago. R&D and production are waiting for the managers to get a decision on that small mistake hidden somewhere in the specifications. In the office, a secretary is typing an overdue proposal for new business. In her hurry, she mistypes “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” The company will lose the job. Also lost will be more than 40 hours of preparation time.
With the managers tied up in their meeting, their overworked associates are bouncing a prospective customer around on the telephone. Asked by the third person to “please hold,” he is thumbing through his telephone directory looking for the name of a competitor. The company’s top sales producer, furious over the lack of prompt support from the back office, has declared a Mental Health Day. He’s working on his putting at the golf course. He can afford it. The company cannot.
None of these small acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement of financial results. They will not appear in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible sieve, draining profit dollar by dollar.
Happily, hundreds of other equally small acts are accumulating profits. A sales representative drove 135 miles this morning to deliver a replacement part to a customer. Sometime next year, the customer will place an extra order. In the back office, three secretaries are meeting informally to balance their work so they can meet their deadlines. This cooperation gets three customer inquiries handled a day early and convinces the senior secretary to turn down another job. Replacing her would have cost $6,000 above budget in temp and recruitment costs.
Harry in maintenance has just uncovered a potential problem with machine number 3. He’s installing a $38 part that will avoid a $12,000 replacement plus three weeks of downtime this summer. Chris is training recruits on safety procedures. Accidents that won’t happen will lower next year’s insurance costs. Mary’s careful review of accounts receivable uncovers an invoicing error that will mean $950 in extra revenue.
Like their negative counterparts, none of these acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement. They will not surface in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible bank account, collecting profit dollar by dollar.
I love the above quote. Taken from Playing for keeps by Frederick Harmon, it masterfully tells the story of the humanity that is foundational to every organisation around the globe. Whether big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit, multinational or local, startup or mature, every organisation is—in reality—the sum of its people and their individual acts.
Although we understand this perspective intuitively, all too often our organisations take on a life of their own. Brands have identities and personalities. Businesses become corporate entities. Organisations have moral and ethical responsibilities. Firms experience growth, maturity, rebirth and death—some are even seeking the key to eternal youth! Companies anticipate, adapt and recover. And organisations have views, attitudes, outlooks and opinions.
As an owner of a springer spaniel and two cats, I’m familiar with the tendency to anthropomorphise our pets—Matt and I do it on a regular basis! Jess is happy, grumpy, jealous, naughty, worried, friendly, and she very definitely loves us!—can you see she’s smiling in the picture?!
In the same way—whether we work for them, consume their products or services, or simply have an opinion on them—we all emphatically anthropomorphise our organisations.
I have no problem with anthropomorphism as a pet owner and I believe it is an important and useful device in business. However, an awareness of our tendency toward it is vital.
Day in, day out, we read our organisations by the collective characteristics we endow them with. Our organisation is innovative, forward-thinking, ambitious and visionary. Or maybe it is stuffy, oppressive, backward and uncaring. What we actually mean by this is that as a group of people we have created a culture, brand, department or company that could be described as having these collective attributes.
Although it is necessary and important to form collective representations of our organisations, we must remain aware that these representations do not exist as concrete realities but are instead symbolic identities. Even within stakeholders of a single organisation, differing opinions will be found: some perceive Tesco as providing great value for money, others see it as an uncaring, corporate behemoth.
And even beyond our own perceptions, we can easily fall into the trap of treating other symbols, abstractions and representations as substantive. Balance sheets and key performance indicators, for example. “Surely those are more objective?” I hear you ask. Harmon would argue they are not:
All management meetings begin with the numbers. The numbers are the single best indicator of how the business is doing. The numbers are so real. So real, it’s hard to remember they are abstractions, macro reflections of the quality of thousands of individual acts.
When well-executed acts significantly exceed poorly executed acts, the numbers “look good.” When poor exceeds good, they “look bad.” Look is the right word. The numbers are always images of reality, never reality itself.
Such images and the organisational entities we relate to are in fact the result of a multitude of individual and collective decisions, cognitions, communications and actions. As Joe Leech (User Experience Director of cxpartners) observes, ”Data dehumanises”.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not for one second saying that the use of representations is wrong—in fact, I’m a strong advocate of key performance indicators, metrics, brand identities and the like—but we do need to look beyond these.
At the end of the day, the foundation of any organisation is us. People. Humans. Individuals and groups. In the words of Harmon, “The small individual act is the basic cell of all performance. Everything we call management ends there.”
We need to remember this as we interact with our companies. Frequently, Matt and I emphasise the importance of considering the bigger picture; in this instance, I’m asking you to instead zoom in from the macro to consider the individual.
In an organisation that is struggling with a negative culture, what are the differences within that culture? Who stands out at as a light in the darkness? Why is their attitude and behaviour different? Is the negativity truly organisational or are there subtle differences between departments, teams and individuals? What can you learn from these differing responses?
Take sales figures as another example. Over the last few years, it has been easy to blame any financial downturn upon the recession, but are there subtle differences if you dig beneath the numbers on your spreadsheets? Is one customer segment more loyal than another? Does a single customer bring you more referrals than any other? Why? What are the differences and what can you learn from them?
Such a perspective is vital at all levels within an organisation but, for leaders, it is of particular importance. In the words of Harmon, “In any serious analysis, managers manage neither results nor numbers. They manage the quality of individual acts.”
Leaders in particular need to be able to identify the subtle differences within a collective and capitalise upon them. What is it that your leading sales representative does differently that he or she could teach others? Are efficiencies and inefficiencies the result of processes and technology or are there unnoticed individual acts that contribute to overall effectiveness? Is team performance reflective of ability or, in reality, does one team display more effective communication patterns than another? For any leader and the techniques that they use, “their power to generate constructive change lies in their capacity to direct or redirect individual small acts.”
So, next time you’re pouring over a spreadsheet, analysing your target market or in the midst of a leadership meeting, take a moment to step into the detail—to consider the individual and their unique acts. You might just discover something surprising. You will certainly add value to your management. And you will definitely unlock the true source of your organisational capabilities.
And for those of you who like the research…
Harmon, F.G. (1996). Playing for keeps. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
In February 1991, when British Rail claimed “the wrong kind of snow” was to blame for disruption to their services, the UK media had a field day! Surely snow was just snow? From an engineering perspective however, British Rail had a point—not all snow is created equal.
This snow was light, fluffy, and apparently entirely unsuitable for our rail system. It wasn’t deep enough for snow ploughs and it got in places that it shouldn’t, resulting in jammed mechanisms and shorted circuits. Emergency timetables were put in place and long delays on the rail network were the order of the day.
All time is not created equal
When it comes to strategic development and building tomorrow’s success, not all time is created equal either. Too much of the wrong kind of time is likely to stop an organisation in its strategic development tracks, resulting in long delays and a failure to create tomorrow’s business.
Many organisations run primarily on maintenance time, responding to what is required right now. Their focus is on today: what needs doing, who needs responding to, and where the next sale is coming from. Head down, just get on with it. Although such time is necessary for day-to-day operations, when it comes to strategic development, maintenance time is the wrong kind of time.
With maintenance time, strategic development just will not happen. Something more important, more urgent, more now will always appear. And the more your organisation only runs on maintenance time, the more urgent everything will become! Maintenance time will, at best, result in small, incremental improvements; more often than not, it just maintains the status quo. Longer term, operating only on this kind of time will certainly result in strategic neglect.
A different kind of time
Strategic development needs a different kind of time. It can’t run on urgent, ‘now’ time. It needs a calmer, ‘development’ kind of time. It needs the kind of time that enables you to calmly look ahead and to see beyond what exists at this instant. To look towards what might exist or what could be created in the future, without worrying about that urgent email or phonecall. It steps away from today to look at how best to build your organisation and its capabilities for tomorrow.
Development time won’t happen by accident and it won’t just magically appear some day. You need to create it. Shut the door on everything else and focus. You need to extricate yourself from the urgent and look around. As a business, you need to take time out to reconsider and examine where you are headed, your broader environment, your competitors, your processes, your business model.
Become self-aware and mindful. Where do you want to be and how would you like to get there? What needs creating that doesn’t currently exist? What could be done better? What needs to go? What needs to be developed? You need to encourage your staff to ask the same questions. To ask, “Is this the best way of doing this?” To take time out. To step away for a moment to spend time on tomorrow.
In doing this, you will develop an organisation that takes responsibility for actively creating tomorrow and that is not just maintaining today. An organisation that has a strategic capability. A conqueror instead of a zombie.
How and when you decide to take this time is up to you but it does need to happen. Dare to escape the office. To turn off your phone. To leave your emails for another day. And please don’t leave this time until it’s urgent, because by then you may find that it’s just too late!
Last week, I wrote about how nothing breeds success like failure but ended on a crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?
My reading around failure has uncovered several suggestions and I would love to add a few of my own.
1. Stop the denial
Failure happens—fact! You will fail; if not today, then tomorrow, next month or next year. Your failure may be big or small, catastrophic or common, but the one thing I can guarantee is that you will experience it.
We need to stop hiding from failure, avoiding it and denying it. As individuals and organisations, it’s ok to admit failure and to put it right. Starbucks has even adopted this as part of their customer service ethos: “Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we’ll make it right.”
At a deeper level, we also need to “acknowledge that some people—even ambitious people, smart people, talented people, tenacious people, good people—experience failures that turn out to be more than mere bumps on the road to success.”
Before we can turn around failure of any form, we must “strive for transparency,” both within our organisations and in the interactions we have with one another.
2. Disown failure as an individual identity
Did you know that in 18th century English, failure as an identity did not exist in our language? Scott Sandage points out that “the usage ‘he is a failure’ or ‘I feel like a failure’ was unknown; people spoke of going into business and ‘making a failure of it’. The striver was still responsible for paying for (and learning from) his own mistakes—but the shop or the counting house was the failure, not the person.”
Such depersonalisation makes failure much easier to face. It also enables objectivity and more effectively facilitates learning. Further, this perspective is a much closer reflection of the truth. We rarely fail entirely alone or entirely through our own fault—usually, circumstance is much more complex than that.
3. Exempt ourselves and others from the obligation to succeed
Closely related to failure as an identity is the pressure to succeed. Real or perceived pressure to ensure that we don’t let others down, disappoint or fail to meet expectations. None of us should be living in fear of the consequences of our failure for, if this is the case, we will never have the courage to try.
Those who experience failure can be ostracised and may experience emotions such as shame and humiliation. High profile failures, such as that of Gerald Ratner, reveal the stigma that can be attached to failure. For some the effect of this stigma is extreme. A study on the relationship between debt and suicide in Japan showed that some consider suicide preferable to their financial failure—in one 52-year old debtor’s words: ”Bankruptcy means you’re a loser for life.”
Although it is inevitable that certain failures will, and should have, consequences, we need to ensure that these consequences are not permanent and nor are they terminal. We need to create a culture in which failure does not engender blame and retribution but that consequences are fair and representative of the action.
Similarly, we need to take down the pedestals upon which we place others and accept that they, like us, will fall. Second, third, fourth, or even one hundredth chances should be available to all.
4. Set realistic expectations
Success is rarely instantaneous but, in a culture that craves instant gratification and “admire[s] instant…effortless brilliance,” this is all too easy to forget.
We need to recognise that success takes time and there will be failures along the way. As organisations and as individuals, we need to set realistic expectations about what is is possible to achieve. In the words of Aza Raskin, former Creative Lead for Firefox, “Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.”
5. Understand the failure spectrum
As I mentioned in my last article, failure is nuanced. At one end of the spectrum is failure that forms “an essential part of a [learning] process” but at the other is failure with “dark” and catastrophic consequences. We need to be able to recognise the different types of failure and employ effective strategies for each.
Within our organisations, we need to create processes, systems, cultures and budgets that allow for and encourage “intelligent” failure.
However, where catastrophic or abject failure is a risk, multiple failsafes should be built in. All too often, “individuals can be quite adept at picking up on hints of failure in the making [but] organisations typically fail to process and act on their warnings.” Such failure is not to be encouraged. At whatever point on the spectrum failure lies, “leaders…must shape cultures that are open both to the possibility of failure and the need to learn when problems do occur.”
6. Create a learning culture
I love this tip from Richard Watson on Fast Company: “Try to fail as often as possible but never make the same mistake twice.” We need to create organisational cultures that both accept and learn from failure. Prototyping, agile methodologies, even basketball or piano practice, do not involve doing the same thing over and over again. Rather, they require that we “learn from [our] failure and try again differently.”
We also need to ensure that we learn from our failures as quickly as possible. Aza Raskin tells the story of Paul MacCready’s efforts to solve the problem of human-powered flight. Whilst others were spending upwards of a year building planes that were destroyed within a matter of minutes and could not easily be rebuilt, MacCready set out to “build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.” Such an approach enabled him to rapidly iterate and the “relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.” Suffice to say, it was MacCready’s planes that claimed Henry Kremer’s rewards for turning his dream of flight into reality.
7. Dare to do things the wrong way
Sometimes, in order to achieve success, we need to dare to do things wrong. Sir James Dyson suggests “initiat[ing] a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path.” In creating the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the conventionally shaped cyclone simply wouldn’t work; it was only when Dyson tried “the wrong shape” that he discovered his key to success. “It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”
Alberto Alessi describes this as “danc[ing] on the borderline between success and disaster.” He points out however that “working close to the borderline is very risky, because you cannot see it with your eyes. It is not clearly drawn or marked. You can only feel it by using sensibility and intuition…One step more, and you risk falling into the not-possible area.” Dare to do things the wrong way but do so wisely.
8. Aim for fallure not failure
In Hitting the vertical wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t, Jim Collins tells the story of attempting to complete an on-sight climb of a route known as the Crystal Ball. A challenging climb, Collins found himself exhausted only three moves away from the crystal. He gave up and let go. In his words, he “failed in [his] mind.”
Learning from his disappointment, Collins went on to discover what he has coined climbing to “fallure, not failure”. When climbing to fallure, you may still fall but you do not choose to do so. Mentally and physically, you give it your all, until either you conquer the rockface or it conquers you.
Collins applies this idea to life and to business. “Going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, [fallure is] the only way to find your true limit.”
9. Know when to quit and when to push on through
Closely related to fallure is the need to know when to quit and when to push on through. Seth Godin talks about the idea of “the dip”—the slog that occurs between learning and mastery. Often such dips need to be beaten and perseverance will lead to success. However, what looks like a dip can also be a “dead end.” We need to be able to recognise the difference.
Similarly, fallure should be used wisely and must be combined with our understanding of the failure spectrum and its risks. Collins later relates the story of the time he convinced another, less experienced climber, to continue climbing a cliff named Cynical Pinnacle even though a storm was approaching. His partner’s rope lodged in a crack and they found themselves trapped “with the temperature in the fifties and dropping, [and] facing a full early-spring front.” Fortunately, both men lived to climb another day but it should be said that continuing to fallure in the midst of a perilous and dangerous situation is sheer folly.
10. Learn the skills to handle failure
Daniel Ostrower, in a comment on Jamer Hunt’s article, pointed out that a “special set of skills (both emotional and intellectual) is required to diagnose and learn from failure.” He argues that, “Not everyone can do it, and even those that can will have more difficulty in certain situations than others.” While I agree that handling failure can be difficult, I wonder whether it is possible to learn skills that would enable us to handle it more effectively. Through studies, such as that of Life after business failure, we can begin to understand the processes that occur and uncover strategies for dealing with failure more effectively.
It should also be said that learning from failure is a process. Business failure involves loss and the psychological effects of such have been likened to those of grief. Just as grieving is a process, so is recovering from failure. Failure can be painful and we need to allow ourselves “time to recover from the hurt”. Only when we have done this, can we engage in “critical reflection,” examining the reasons for the failure and learning to move beyond them.
Michael Jordan—a final word
To return to where we began this journey, Michael Jordan has had astounding success but it has been founded on hard work, dedication, perseverance and failure. In another famous Nike advert, he says:
Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t…Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength—that my pain was my motivation. Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something I worked for—every single day of my life.
Maybe I destroyed the game.
Or maybe, you’re just making excuses.
Michael Jordan was never shooting to lose but that didn’t mean he never missed. We need to dare to fail in order to succeed. As organisations and as individuals, if we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our fear of missing, we will never take the shot that wins or loses us the game.
What can you dare to fail at today?
And for those of you who like the research…
Collins, J. (2003). Hitting the wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t.Jim Collins
Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate.Fast Co.Design
But the less obvious truth is that failure can lead to success.
To err is human
I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Believe it or not, these are the words of Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s “greatest of all time.” His accomplishments include “two gold medals, six finals MVP awards, five league MVP awards, three All-Star MVP awards, ten scoring titles, Defensive Player of the Year and an induction to the Hall of Fame in 2009.”
Before creating the revolutionary vacuum cleaner we know and love today, Sir James Dyson invested 15 years, nearly his entire savings, and built 5,127 prototypes before he got it right. In his words that means, “There were 5,126 failures.”
Scott Sandage (author and associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University) says:
To paraphrase the anthopologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: someday we’ll be dead and eventually we’ll all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’ tip for a successful career: make sure the first precedes the second.)
I have to remind my brothers how vital it is to have one, possibly two fiascoes per year. Should Alessi go for two or three years without a fiasco, we will be in danger of losing our leadership in design.
Walking the winding road to success
Much as we like to think of the journey to success as being like a Roman road, straight and unswerving, in reality it almost always involves roundabouts, u-turns, blind alleys, detours and hairpin bends.
I love the below cartoon (attributed to Demetri Martin, This is a book) and, having become an online meme over the last couple of years, it would seem that it has resonated with others also.
Following such a winding path does however require persistence, tenacity, determination and resilience—it is not easy to keep going in the face of multiple setbacks. Honesty, transparency, maturity and humility are also all needed.
Yet, numerous authors have observed that it is these very traits that can be the source of reward.
For more than 100 years, psychologists and scholars have shown that perseverance seems to be inherent to success over and above either talent or intelligence. Honesty and transparency can also result in the development of credibility and trust.
Avoiding the anti-failure bias
Accepting and admitting failure requires us to confront our fears. It also involves risk—risk of rejection, risk of misunderstanding and risk of consequences. Perhaps this is why we naturally shy away from failure and seek to avoid it whenever possible. Rita McGrath (a professor at Columbia Business School) has coined this tendency the “anti-failure bias.”
But, as we have already seen, failure does not always have the negative impact we so fear. In fact, McGrath points out that an avoidance of failure can itself have unintended and negative consequences. Ironically, failure can be caused and exacerbated by a blinkered desire for success.
We therefore need to create a culture in which it is acceptable to fail, both individually and organisationally. A culture that encourages experimentation and learning. A culture in which individuals and organisations are encouraged to admit their failures and move beyond them.
Many designers and developers have already learned this lesson and agile methodologies encourage their users to: “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.” In essence, this involves rapidly prototyping ideas to test their strengths and weaknesses, discover their failure points, and unearth future improvements. Rather than investing vast amounts of time and money into a fatally flawed project, such an approach ensures that “every failure is a step on the path to success.”
A big, fat BUT…
In writing this article, I do not wish to portray the idea that all failure is good. Circumstances in which failure has resulted in crippling and catastrophic consequences are within all too easy reach: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; the global financial crisis; or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to name but a few. In both these disasters and within our own circles, there will be people “for whom failure is a crushing reality, not an inspiring lesson.”
Failure is never without a cost. In a working paper on life after business failure, the authors identify entrepreneurial failure as having three primary costs: “financial, social and psychological.” In some cases, it is possible to moderate and recover from these; at other times, the costs can prove debilitating.
Tellingly, the authors also observe that struggling ventures that delay cessation have variously been referred to as “‘permanently failing’…’unproductive’…’chronic failures’.. and ‘the living dead’”. It seems safe to assume that none of these are desirable states.
Whilst the journey to success is undoubtedly a winding road, ploughing ahead in the face of warning signals at every juncture is surely a fool’s errand. Failure is nuanced and we need to understand this.
Jamer Hunt, writing on Fast Co.Design, suggests that “we need a failure spectrum.” I believe this is a brilliant idea and it is one that I intend to explore further in a later post.
In the meantime, it is enough to say that we need to be able to identify when failure is (or at least can be) productive; when it is a sign that something is wrong and we should quit; and when preventative measures should be taken to avoid it.
Breeding success—a failure how to
All in all, this therefore begs the crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?
Toothpaste aside for a moment, I’d love to share with you an idea that I’ve been mulling over for nearly six months now…
Less is more and, believe it or not, your business can be more with less!
Minimalism and de-cluttering have become popular personal paradigms—you only have to Google ‘de-cluttering’ for a wealth of hints, tips, articles and websites on how to de-clutter your life.
Surprisingly, there is also a profusion of literature (both academic and experiential) that supports the value of de-cluttering your business, particularly your product lines and service offerings.
Reducing the range of choices that you offer your customers not only increases the likelihood that they will buy in the first place but it also increases their level of satisfaction with the purchase they make.
De-cluttering therefore creates value for your business. Simplification also frees up your time and resources enabling you to be outstanding at the few things you do rather than mediocre at the many.
Allow me to tell you a story…
I have sensitive teeth. When I bite into an ice cream or switch quickly between hot and cold, needles of pain shoot through my teeth. Until earlier this year, I was relying on Colgate Time Control to reduce these sensations. For whatever reason, Colgate seem to have discontinued this toothpaste and eventually I found myself in Sainsbury staring at a rather overwhelming myriad of choices.
Colgate alone sell no fewer than six different types of sensitive toothpaste: Total Sensitive, Sensitive Pro-Relief, Sensitive, Sensitive Whitening, Sensitive Multi Protection and Sensitive Enamel Protect.
The marketing speak on the boxes is virtually indecipherable and, to all intents and purposes, they all seem to do the same thing! I’m sure there’s more science involved but, from a lay-person’s perspective, the subtle differences between each product are almost impossible to discern.
And that’s not even including other brands. Sensodyne, Arm & Hammer, Oral B, Sainsbury’s own brand—the list goes on!
After standing at the shelves for a rather long time (certainly longer than should be necessary to buy a tube of toothpaste!), I eventually dropped a box of Total Sensitive into my trolley. Why? To be honest, simply because Matt uses Colgate Total Advanced Whitening and it seems to work for him.
Fortunately, my choice seems to have been a good one and I haven’t suffered any sensitivity or pain. Yet, every time I pass the shelves I find myself questioning whether there is a better toothpaste for me. Surely choosing toothpaste shouldn’t be this complicated?!
The art of simplicity
In another, totally different situation earlier this year, I was conversely impressed by the art of simplicity.
For a thoroughly English outing and to celebrate my mum’s birthday, Matt and I visited David Austen’s Plant Centre. Heading to the tearooms for lunch, we found ourselves stood inside the door by a blackboard with ‘Today’s Lunch Menu’ handwritten in chalk.
As we waited to be seated, we read the menu. Served between 12 – 2.30pm, diners at the tearooms could choose from a selection of six lunchtime platters: two different types of sandwiches, a garden platter, pâté, coronation chicken or dressed Devon crab. Even with only six options, we had difficulty choosing but, by the time we were seated, the waitress was able to take our order immediately.
A restaurant menu is one situation in which an abundance of choice is generally thought to be a good thing. Interestingly however, the limited selection offered in the tearooms not only conferred benefits upon the diners—we were seated quickly despite a long queue, received our meals almost immediately, were given great customer service and ate a fabulous meal—but also upon the business itself.
The tedious chore of queuing was transformed into a creative choice process; diners reached their decisions faster, enabling a higher number of covers to be filled within the short lunchtime period; food production was highly efficient as only a limited number of dishes were being served; and ordering processes are likely to have been simplified and relatively volume based.
Around the same time as this, I stumbled across another article on the idea of less is more. In this article, Lawrence Chan profiled The Doughnut Vault—a doughnut store in Chicago .
Starting at 8.30am Tuesday-Friday and 9.30am on Saturday, The Doughnut Vault typically sell between 750 to 900 doughnuts per day but once they’re sold out (often by 10am!), that’s it—they’re sold out. Even though the store only offer a limited range of flavours, the queue to buy is often 40 to 50 people deep and nearly an hour long to wait.
As Lawrence points out, “scarcity lends value”. By limiting availability and supply, The Doughnut Vault creates a sense of urgency and demand for their product. Not only that, but as Brian Adams expresses in one of the blog’s comments, limited options enable “higher quality control”, conferring further benefits upon the business.
I was similarly intrigued by another of the blog’s comments by Fabiana Loverde de Huffaker:
My sister opened a home decor store that is only open on Thursdays. She has 400-600 transactions per week. Prices are to die for, service is top notch. People come from all parts of the western US with trailers and will clean her out. The thinking was, if you need something from Walmart, and you know it is open 24/7, you put it off. If you can only get it one day a week, you make it a priority to get there on that one day. People thought she was crazy and 5 years later, she can not keep up with demand. Donuts or decor – the principle works!
A sound business case
As I hinted earlier, aside from the experiential evidence above, an extremely sound business case can be made for embracing the idea of less is more.
Back in 2000, Sheena Iyengar (a professor at Columbia Business School) and Mark Lepper (a professor of psychology at Stanford University) conducted what has become a classic study on the consequences of choice.
Whether examining the behaviour of consumers purchasing jam in an upscale grocery store, the performance of social psychology students in an extra-credit essay assignment, or the satisfaction and purchasing behaviour of individuals tasting chocolates, Iyengar and Lepper consistently demonstrated that a wider range of choice can have a detrimental effect on satisfaction, performance, motivation and even purchasing behaviour. Even in situations where choice had relatively trivial consequences, their results were startling.
When consumers were presented with a tasting booth of Wilkin & Sons’ jam at Draeger’s Supermarket, those consumers who encountered a display of only six different varieties of jam were ten times more likely to buy than those individuals who encountered a display of twenty-four varieties.
Similarly, students who encountered only six different flavours of Godiva chocolates were four times as likely to choose a box of chocolates over the offer of $5 than those who either encountered thirty different flavours or those who had been given no choice in which chocolate to sample. Individuals who had encountered a limited range of flavours were also significantly more satisfied with the chocolate that they tasted.
Such findings have been replicated time and again. In 2004, Barry Schwartz wrote ‘The paradox of choice: why more is less’—over 200 pages of examples and evidence supporting the idea that whilst we feel like an abundance of choice should bring freedom and happiness, in fact too much choice “might even be said to tyrannize”.
And household brands are learning from these ideas and capitalising upon them.
In the early 1990s, Proctor & Gamble reduced its product roster by one third; “even the mighty Head & Shoulders line was pared in half”. In the same period, P&G’s overall sales grew by one third and sales per item in hair care more than doubled, with market share in hair care growing by nearly five points.
More recently, “when General Motors shrunk its brands from eight to four last year, dealers reported a 16% increase in sales.”
Is it time to de-clutter your business?
In the face of the possibility that your business could become more with less and could even gain competitive advantage, is it time to trim your product lines or service offerings? Have they become unnecessarily complex or overwhelmingly confusing? Could you create value for your organisation and your customers by adopting the idea that less is more?
In a world in which complexity increases almost daily, being able to make simple choices is a refreshing change and simplicity helps you to stand out from the crowd. Far from being unhelpful or constrictive, by giving our customers less choice, we actually release them to focus on the more important things in life. After all, life is too short to spend more than 2 minutes worrying about which toothpaste to buy!
I’m learning and developing my own skill-set all the time. I push myself to learn new skills and develop existing ones.
If I don’t grow and develop, I limit my business and limit my clients’ businesses.
Learning is a process. I put time, money and effort into that process, through which I am rewarded with increased knowledge and skill.
Yet, whenever and whatever I’m learning, I’ve noticed the same two feelings occur: excitement and frustration.
The frustration occurs during the stages in the process at which I am investing time and effort, but don’t have the immediate gratification of knowing and understanding.
The excitement comes from ‘knowing’ something new and being able to do something that I couldn’t do before. Learning is fun!
So what can we learn from this process?
We need to judge frustration correctly. Will the frustration break through to excitement, in which case we just need to keep pressing on? Or do we need some help or need to pursue another avenue? It is pointless pressing on if the frustration is there because we have reached a dead end, but we also shouldn’t give up too quickly.
If we are not getting frustrated about the learning process, then this may be telling us that we’re not being stretched enough. Maybe we’re just coasting when we should be pushing through into a new area.
‘Breakthrough’ is difficult to predict – normally it comes after, or in the middle of, frustration, but we have no way of knowing exactly when it will happen. It often feels like one of those lightbulb moments when suddenly it all makes sense.
Applying this to our businesses…
In business, we find the experience of learning in both our own personal development and also in the implementation of new projects and tasks. How often have you felt frustrated that a project seems to be going nowhere and you just feel stuck? Maybe you’re trying to re-write the copy for your website but you just can’t quite grasp those elusive words that say what you really want to say! The same principles as above apply.
We need to judge frustration in a project correctly. It may be that we’re on the right path, we just haven’t reached the point of breakthrough yet; in which case, we need to keep pressing on. Alternatively, we may need some external input and support – it’s amazing what a fresh pair of eyes can see. Or, we may have actually reached a dead end; using a business analogy, maybe the marketplace we’re competing in just isn’t the right one anymore and we need to target a new set of customers.
If all the projects we take on as a company or as individuals are easy and never give us any sense of breaking through, it may be that we’re coasting. Although coasting can be great – especially if the company is making good profits and returns from something that they find relatively easy – coasting can lead to complacency and also never gives that great sense of achievement we gain from breaking through in something we’ve found quite challenging. I can’t imagine that the truly great companies out there have ever achieved that status without stretching themselves.
Breakthrough is difficult to predict, so when we feel we really are on the right path, we need to press on through and not get discouraged. Breakthrough may be just around the corner and it will be a fantastic moment of elation when we reach it.
Becoming aware of how areas within your business communicate with your customers is vital if you want to convey a consistent message about your brand/business.
The difficulty is that your customers don’t just read the words you write, or hear what you say about your business. They tend to read a whole lot more into every single interaction with your business. Both consciously and unconsciously. They even read things into the interactions they don’t have, or the things you don’t do.
Shabby carpet in a reception area.
Customer perception: Maybe your business isn’t doing very well if you can’t afford a new carpet.
Taking a long time to answer the phone.
Customer perception: Maybe you don’t actually want my business.
Old fashioned branding.
Customer perception: Maybe you are just an old fashioned company delivering out-of-date solutions.
Becoming aware of what your business is saying about itself can be hard when you’re so close to it, but with some outside help you can train yourself into noticing again. Try interacting with your business as if you were a customer – how does it make you feel? What would you be thinking if you saw or experienced those things in another business? Ask your friends, family, colleagues and customers what they think about your business. Listen to their honest opinions. Then aim to change the things you can.
Being confident that your business is communicating what you want to communicate is a great place to be. Don’t let your business undermine what it is you really want to say!