Ma, we could all do with going a bit crazy every now and then

Business

Ma, we could all do with going a bit crazy every now and then

Both Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Uri Levine (Waze) extol the virtues of failure. Failure is the new success

Mark Barnes


I recently heard both Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Uri Levine (Waze) extol the virtues of failure. Failure is the new success. If you’d like to test the failure temperature an organisation, go look at their risk register. You’ll often find it to be a measure of the appetite for, rather than the threat of, taking risk.
Where failure has become a comfort zone, the risk matrix is always red. Everything is always a serious threat, nothing is worth taking a chance on, however well considered. It is simply better to do nothing than to risk doing something, particularly doing it right away. In the more serious cases of corporate procrastination, red just doesn’t seem enough. To scare those left still thinking of moving forward into permanent standstill, shades of darker red are introduced … crimson, blood, whatever it takes.
Of course, there are real risks and identifying them means we can do something about them. But the reds will be found among the ambers and greens in a balanced risk assessment. If all aspects of your business are seen to be at risk then pack it up already, the whole damn company is at risk.
Red risk matrices are sure signs of where failure is a refuge, where the organisation has given up. Change the leaders. No decisions will be made unless you Control, Alternate, Delete.
Long before this terminal state is reached, symptoms of impending group failure become obvious. Instead of doing anything, people avoid the risk of failure by developing carefully constructed excuses for why something can’t or hasn’t yet been done. Blame and complain are the order of the day. Problems are repeated back at you, instead of being solved. Accountability is avoided, and yet it is the root of self-respect.
While sideways delegation only defers, upward delegation is a killer. Blaming someone else starts a chain reaction of deferral that protects the weakest link, which could be you. If you can’t get started how can you get it wrong? It’s always better to do something than to do nothing. Your competitors will be doing things, making mistakes, moving on, stealing your lunch – their success will become another one of your excuses to fail. Trial and error builds institutional knowledge and will beat idle abstinence every time. Small, early failures build the foundations for longer term success.
If failure is often already entrenched and expected before you get there, find the highest ranking failures in the organisation and fire them.
There is no greater impediment to progress than the toxic mixture of power and incompetence found at the top level of management in failed organisations. Incompetent leaders, ordained with power, suppress any initiative below them. These bullies live in the constant fear that they will be found out and displaced. If they are tolerated they will destroy your company, but only after the good people have left.
Only once you’ve scraped the mould off the cream can you hope to release the engine room of people who operate at the escape velocity to get you out of the orbit of failure.
Any boundaries (silos), and just about any hierarchical diagram I’ve ever seen, should be scrapped. You simply can’t pass the problem over the wall because there isn’t one. “I’ve sent an e-mail” is not a job done.
Getting things done requires everyone to know what their role is, and everyone to be in the room when progress is being discussed. Output must be the judge, not intention, and the team must be integrated and have common purpose. When you’re on the sports field, trying to score, the team captain has very little to say beyond encouragement and congratulations. You must change the culture to replace the habit of failure with the habit of success. It happens incrementally, not by dictate. The people doing their homework on time must be rewarded, as must those who exercise judgment or take initiative, at all levels. The promise of economic prosperity and respect must outweigh the risk of ridicule.
No matter how hard you try or how well you lead or reward, you cannot cure rotten apples by simply throwing more good ones into the basket. You must take the bad apples out first. The detractors must go, the fiefdoms must be destroyed, the camps must be taken down.
If you get it right it will be the culture of the organisation that does the hiring and firing, not the HR policies, not the CEO.
Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.

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