Sunday, October 6, 2013

Experiment or Die

Stupid mistakes and do-overs. Come on. Admit it. You've made your share. I made a similar mistake to the lumberjack in the above video. Trying to save a couple hundred bucks by not hiring a professional, I cut a tree limb away from my sliding glass door. Cutting straight down with a chain saw the limb cracked and held together by the fibrous bark. Like a hinge it pivoted down, perfectly connecting with the glass door below shattering it to pieces. It cost me $1,200 to replace the door and I've never made the same mistake since.

How does your organization treat failure? Are mistakes something that end up in performance reviews, or brought up later in a conversation when a point is being made? Failure is a component of learning and innovation. Do you have a philosophy surrounding failure in your business culture? Are there written values that talk about the process of innovation?

We have a lot of experienced people at Silicon Valley Bank and a long culture of innovation. Those people have had the most opportunity to make mistakes so you can argue are the biggest failures. After 30 years since our founding, the bank has been trying various things to celebrate the milestone. One thing we're doing is offering 30 weekly pearls of wisdom from people who've been here the longest. This week marked my 24th year at the organization and coincidentally my quote was the one shared this week.

The World According to Rob

The way I see the world, there are tactical failures and strategic failures. On the strategic side of things you have to be able to try old things in new ways, or discover brand new solutions. Why? Because the world and business is evolving every day. In fact I think the wine business is operating under something of a Moores Law and the pace of change is redoubling at an exponential rate. Are you keeping pace?

Weapons of Mass Culture Destruction

So many business cultures are full of doubt. "What? That's a crazy idea. That will never work..." Ever hear that one? I can't tell you how many times someone, in response to a new idea asks me: "Who has ever done that before?" as if we have to have someone else as a template before trying something new. If that is your culture, you will never be an industry leader. You will never be first to market and have a first-mover advantage. Sure there is a risk in failing, but if you judge people by their failures, then they are failures. Judge instead by their successes. If you really want to judge by failures and you are a hiring manager, then you better look in the mirror because you hired them making you the real failure. Apparently you would rather hire lemmings who don't take risk versus hiring people who are willing to try and fail.  

If you aren't allowing people to experiment and fail to evolve the business, you will die because your competitors will blaze by you. You might also look at management because there is potentially an issue of managers asserting control instead of allowing employees to use their God-given talents to succeed in the manner in which they will be the most successful.

But they are always making mistakes!!

Sometimes the best answer is the simple one
It's not the volume of mistakes made. Its learning and improving from the mistakes that really is important. If someone can't learn, then maybe they aren't in the right job. But if you hide daily mistakes, I guarantee the mistakes will continue, particularly in tactics and daily execution.

I worked in an organization years ago that had a fear of failure. In fact I remember being told by a senior person, "The first rule of banking is: Blame someone else." Making mistakes in that culture was a certain way to have a short career. Guess what? Few people have long careers there unless they get really good at deflecting blame and playing politics. The culture sucks. What happens in that environment? Mistakes get buried. You never can help people grow because all mistakes are magnified, they show up on your performance evaluation, and client care suffers because you can't address hidden issues. Failure happens still. It just goes underground and everyone walks around talking about what an awesome job they are doing because its a mistake-free environment.

Celebrate Failure !!

My view is you have to develop a culture that celebrates failure because failure is a key component to success. You have to have values embedded in the business culture that reward and encourage those who try and fail. Failure is a form of tuition. You paid the tuition so you might as well harvest the learning and evolve. If you lack business values that protect this critical success element, your company is already dying. 

Here are some other thoughts to consider in your winery business culture:
  • Does your culture have the puritan ethic to punish failures?
  • Do old mistakes get brought up in passive-aggressive ways? "Oh boy. That sure didn't work out .... haha."
  • Are those who naturally have ideas given a platform for you to harvest their thoughts?
  • Do those who question process get an open opportunity to voice their solutions without fearing political backlash from others supporting or running a business process?
  • Do your managers use ideas that come from others and then give credit where credit is due? or ... Do they take the credit themselves for ideas?
  • Do managers ignore other's ideas and only implement their own to elevate themselves?
  • How do you know you have a culture that has a wide funnel to hear new ideas? Are you only talking to managers?
  • Do you have a stated business perspective regarding innovation and failure, or is it left unsaid because "everyone gets it?"
  • Are successful ideas given lavish attention? Or are successes no different that any other positive thing in business?
  • Are failures talked about openly so everyone can learn? Or are the feelings of the people considered first? In an environment that truly celebrates failure, open discussion of failure is no big deal.

What do you think? Any examples of successes or failures from your past? Any thoughts about the way successful and unsuccessful companies create a culture surrounding innovation and failure? Is there anything here that stimulates your thinking and resolve to effect change?

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  1. Replies
    1. [Deleted for typos and re-posted.]



      ~~ BOB

      Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal Online
      (April 30, 2008):

      “Numbers Guy Interview: Leonard Mlodinow”


      By Carl Bialik
      “The Numbers Guy” Blog

      [Mlodinow is a lecturer at Caltech who has collaborated on two books with Stephen Hawking.]

      WSJ: Just because a certain human achievement -- say, clutch hitting, or successful stock picking -- exhibits the normal statistical variation, does that necessarily mean the best performers were just LUCKY? Or is there something about human intentionality that makes it possible that the best performers really did exhibit extraordinary skill and were deserving of the result?

      Mr. Mlodinow: Intentionality and talent always matter. An extraordinary feat is certainly made more likely by someone’s focus, hard work, etc. But CHANCE also matters. And since there are few situations outside the science laboratory in which the random influences can be eliminated, LUCK is almost always a part of the statistical variation we observe in people’s feats.

      . . .

      WSJ: Might we need to proceed irrationally in our lives to SUCCEED? In other words, if we really believed that so much of SUCCESS was the result of LUCK, wouldn’t a lot of us just give up trying?

      Mr. Mlodinow: Some theorize that this is the evolutionary reason that we like to assume we are in control, even when we clearly aren’t. That may be so, but I don’t mourn the role of LUCK, I celebrate it. All else equal, it is a lot more fun not knowing how your book will do, or how your life will turn out, than it would be if everything could be determined by a logical calculation. Moreover, the fact that LUCK matters means you can help yourself by being persistent. A failure doesn’t mean you are unworthy, nor does it preclude SUCCESS on the next try.

      As Thomas J. Watson, the highly successful IBM pioneer, said:


      . . .


      From BusinessWeek “Cover Story” Section
      (July 10, 2006, Page 42ff):

      “How Failure Breeds Success;
      Everyone fears failure. But breakthroughs depend on it.
      The best companies embrace their mistakes and learn from them."

      [Link: ]

      By Jena McGregor
      Staff Writer

    2. From BusinessWeek “Ideas: Books” Section
      (October 8, 2007, Page 104):

      “Throw Away the Cookie Cutter”


      Book review by Jenna McGregor

      “The Future of Management”
      By Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
      (Harvard Business School Press; 272 pp; $26.95)

      There’s a reason boards of directors can pluck so many CEOs out of one company and plop them into another: When it comes to management ideas and tools, many companies are surprisingly similar. They have the same hierarchies and budgeting process. They have “balanced scorecards” that measure performance. They benchmark their peers, adopt “best practices,” and seemingly all house an army of Six Sigma black belts standing ready to defend quality control.

      Such management monotony, writes Gary Hamel in “The Future of Management,” is evidence that WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING ORGANIZATIONS OR LEADING TEAMS, THERE’S LITTLE EXPERIMENTATION. In this lively manifesto, written with Fast Company veteran Bill Breen, Hamel argues that "management innovation" -- rethinking decision-making practices, organizational structures, and the demands on employees' time -- is crucial for coping with today's business challenges. . . .

      Hamel's best company examples . . . look at how large, traditional corporations have EXPERIMENTED with new management ideas. . . .


      From The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” Section
      (May 5, 2008, Page B1ff):

      “New Breed of Business Gurus Rises”

      [ Link: ]

      [See accompanying exhibits]

      By Erin White
      Staff Reporter

      The guru game is changing.

      Psychologists, journalists and celebrity chief executives crowd the top of a ranking of influential business thinkers compiled for The Wall Street Journal. The results, based on Google hits, media mentions and academic citations, RANKED AUTHOR AND CONSULTANT GARY HAMEL NO. 1.

      . . .

      Dr. Hamel rose to the top spot from No. 7 in the 2003 ranking. He's best-known for writing about corporate strategy. His newest book, "The Future of Management," released last year, explores companies such as Google Inc. to tap managers' interest in new ways to run their businesses.

      . . .

      Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” Section
      (May 5, 2008, Page B6):

      “Quest for Innovation, Motivation Inspires the Gurus”

      [ Link: ]

      By Erin White
      Staff Reporter

      . . .

      • Gary Hamel, 53 years old, is a prolific writer and speaker . . .

      What's his secret? "He's just got a good sense of the managerial zeitgeist," says Thomas H. Davenport, who compiled the rankings. At a time when businesspeople worry that traditional management techniques are losing effectiveness, Dr. Hamel has written a book examining new approaches. "The Future of Management," published in October, uses case studies from Google Inc. and Gore-Tex maker W.L. Gore to shed light on management innovation.

      . . .

      Dr. Hamel says his latest book sprang from years of conversations with frustrated managers. "It seemed to me that getting large organizations to be persistently innovative was akin to getting a dog to walk on its hind legs," he says. "The moment you turned your back, it was down on all fours again." He argues that long-term success for companies stems more from the way they are managed than from their strategy or products.

      . . .

  2. Rob,

    I have been on a quixotic quest for two years to answer this question:

    "Does anyone use carbonic maceration to make WHITE wine?"

    I have posed this question to enology professors, winemakers, Masters of Wine, a Master Sommelier, wine writers, wine importers/distributors, and wine merchants.

    The answers that come back: "Not that I'm aware of."

    And yet . . . when seeking to avoid the extraction of skin tannins from pink or red skinned "white wine" grapes such as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, this red winemaking technique might yield satisfying results.

    In a world of largely undifferentiated domestic white wines, violating the shibboleths of conventional wisdom by adopting a red winemaking technique to make white wine could be an eye-opener.

    And because I am not a winemaker trained by UC Davis or Fresno State who has drunk the Kool-Aid, I can ask the village idiot question: "If not -- why not?"


  3. Rob,

    I invite your readers to seek out this article.

    ~~ Bob

    From The Wall Street Journal
    (October 12, 2013, Page C1ff):

    “Scott Adams' Secret of Success: Failure;
    What's the best way to climb to the top? Be a failure.”


    By Scott Adams
    “The Saturday Essay”

    [ Mr. Adams is the creator of Dilbert. Adapted from his book "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big," to be published by Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), on October 22. ]


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