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Stever Robbins 6/16/03

Organizations should reward learning as well as sales. Here's how.

QuestionAny ideas about how to capture lessons learned for a knowledge base—i.e. getting colleagues to NOT fear repercussions of admitting 'mistakes' and/or admitting what they did not know?

AnswerFirst, the Truth: most of us are afraid to admit mistakes or ignorance for good reason. Culturally, we don't tolerate mistakes. Since first grade, we've been scolded, punished, given poor grades, passed over for promotion, ostracized, and belittled for our mistakes. 2003's most popular TV series is "American Idol II." The first several episodes were a countrywide mockery of talentless pop-star wannabes who at least had the courage to take a risk in front of 250 million people. Their reward? Public ridicule.

Sometimes we get the message that mistakes are OK. A well meaning, understanding person—usually from the Human Potential movement—says in a soft, caring voice, "It's not a mistake, it's a learning opportunity." Two days later, the team member who didn't make the mistake is promoted to team leader. It was a learning opportunity, all right. The learning was, "Don't screw up, follow the rules, and we won't punish you. You'll take home your weekly paycheck, get your gold watch at retirement, and all will be well."

Society's message is, "Don't admit mistakes or bad things will happen." Before people will embrace their not-knowing, you have to make it safe, even desirable, to take risks.

The organization must support risk taking
Look first to your reward systems. Most organizations reward outcomes: sell the most, get promoted; meet your ship date, get a bonus; meet your earnings projections, get an analyst's stamp of approval. The rewards come from reaching an outcome, no matter how it was reached. Imagine Laurie, a shoe salesperson for OutcomeCo. Laurie's sales tactics work on just 1 percent of the customers. Fortunately, the territory is flush with that 1 percent, so meeting quarterly targets is a breeze. Laurie is motivated to milk the 1 percent, rather than take risks to capture the other 99 percent.

People do what you pay them for, so pay them to learn.
— Stever Robbins

And why should Laurie take risks? Risk taking by its nature produces missed targets much of the time. The solution is to reward the learning process as well as the targets. Imagine LearningCo, where the bonus is based on helping the company move faster toward its goals by gathering useful information, developing better ways of doing things, or identifying what not to do again (mistakes). In LearningCo, Laurie is rewarded for capturing the 1 percent, but is also rewarded for noticing market trends, trying cool new sales tactics that don't work—no doubt involving unicycles, French horns, and a powdered wig—and inventing cool new products that may someday take over the market.

People do what you pay them for, so pay them to learn. Add personal risk-taking plans to your yearly reviews. Ask, "Are you taking enough risks? How can I help you take more?" Applaud in public (and in private!) when someone fails at something wildly, audaciously new. Celebrate whoever has the wackiest new ideas. Otherwise, time spent thinking outside the box is also time spent thinking outside-the-bonus-structure. Given the choice between outside-the-box poverty and inside-the-BMW business-as-usual, don't be surprised when people choose the BMW.

It's hard to reward learning in an outcome-based culture; it takes real strength of conviction. Are you willing to pad your schedule with time for failures and experimentation? Will you step up to the plate and give a larger bonus to someone who learned and failed than to someone who reached an important outcome through sheer luck?

A software company rewarded their flagship product's manager with a Hawaiian vacation when the product shipped. Since the flagship product accounted for 70 percent of the company's revenue, the manager was given whatever budget and staff he requested to insure success. He had no need to learn; he could just commandeer more resources. Other managers—whose projects were cannibalized without notice for the flagship project—learned to streamline their development and ship on time with limited resources. Taken at face value, it sounds reasonable to reward the flagship manager more than the other managers, yet he contributed much less to the organization's ongoing strength and capability. By not rewarding the other managers for their learning in a difficult situation, they eventually lost many of their good performers.

Support risk taking one-on-one
Once the organization structures support risk taking, support the behaviors one-on-one. When you see or hear someone pushing the edge of their thinking, step up and ask questions to push further. Brainstorm with them, and walk the example of encouraging people to push their (and the organization's) edge. When someone has an idea that could lead to great learning, help her pursue it by giving her time and resources.

Time spent thinking outside-the-box is also time spent thinking outside-the-bonus-structure.
— Stever Robbins

Also watch how others treat risk taking and mistakes. If you overhear someone making fun of someone else's mistake or missed targets, ask them, "I wonder if the mistake was because they were trying something new?" Start exploring in conversation whether those present are taking enough risks. If you're greeted with cynicism and incredulity, "If we did that, we'd just get fired and lose our bonuses," celebrate! People are handing you their specific objections to risk taking. You can then ask simply, "What would have to happen for you to feel safe enough go out on a limb and try?"

Start learning reviews with facts
Even with one-on-one support for your people, it's safest to structure project reviews as a review of facts. In fact, there's no need to make a retrospective personal. Limit analysis to an examination of what did and didn't happen. Keep personal responsibility out of it, and bring in personal commitment only when the team begins exploring the future. Once learning becomes commonplace, people will become comfortable owning their part in what happens.

At project reviews, the team will assume that its own behavior was flawless. The ubiquitous "they" was the source of all problems. "They" delivered materials late. "They" passed restrictive legislation. "They" didn't provide the needed direction or focus. A team must get "they" out of its system before considering its own part in what happened.

Have everyone gather together facing a whiteboard (so it's "us" vs. the whiteboard), and make a big list of everything that went wrong, no matter whose fault. List facts without judgment. If specific people are mentioned, remove the blame and just describe circumstances. "Bob handed in the report late" would become "Report handed in late."

Then make a second list of all the good things that happened. Be specific. "We supported each other" is too vague. "We stayed late and took on each other's work in order to meet a tight deadline" is just about right. At the end of this exercise, you'll have a list of specific actions that can serve as a jumping-off point.

For each "bad" action, ask the team:

  • What choices could we have made to avoid the bad action?
  • What choices did we make that should have been avoided?
  • What misinterpretations of events, motivations, and actions did we make that led to the bad action?
  • What were the correct interpretations?
  • What do all these imply about what we should and shouldn't do going forward?

For each "good" action, ask:

  • What did we do to cause this?
  • Is there anything we refrained from doing that allowed this to happen?
  • Did our interpretation of events, motivations, and actions help this action come to pass?
  • What do all these imply about what we should do and shouldn't do going forward?

What you're after is team learning. If Bob handed in a report three weeks late, the only question that mentions Bob is the question, "How can the team help Bob get the report done on time?" By discussing facts and framing the team's involvement as one of future joint responsibility, you are shifting from a frame of "Who did what right/wrong?" to "What happened, and how can we help it happen better next time?"

Cultures—learning or not—become self-fulfilling prophecies. If your company has a conservative culture, it's probably full of people who self-selected not to take risks and not to admit mistakes. Shifting that culture means addressing fears with substance: make sure your organization supports risk-taking in its rewards and performance measures. Model that support in your daily interactions. And even then, you'll get the best learning when you carefully separate judgments from facts, and keep people engaged in finding solutions rather than rehashing blame. Our society does a great job of squelching learning instincts, but with patience, care, and precise communication, you can make it safe for a group to re-create a culture of learning and exploration.

Stever Robbins is president of Leadership Decisionworks, a speaking, coaching, and facilitation firm helping executives and their teams improve leadership with an emphasis on decision-making. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.