Embracing the near win is an essential part of leadership. Since failure is rarely fatal in the nonprofit world, savvy leaders experiment and willingly take risks. While failure can damage your self-esteem and slow your career trajectory, if not managed well, it can also be the springboard to success. Strengthening your ability to discern and manage risks in today’s increasingly complex nonprofit environment is the focus of this article. Exploring organizational decision-making, dealing with failure, crisis management, leadership behavior and avoiding preventable problems are among the biggest challenges. How do you avoid blind spots and what impacts your ability to prevent failures. Here are six proactive strategies you can use to learn new leadership and coping skills to both avoid and manage failure.
Are Failures the Currency of Progress?
Takata is recalling 19 million airbags installed in cars and trucks from 12 different manufacturers. Norovirus, salmonella, and e-coli outbreaks at Chipotle Restaurants in ten states sickened 334 people. The US Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef from improperly slaughtered cows. America lost 21 NASA astronauts to training, pre-flight, and in-flight accidents including the total loss of two Space Shuttles. Toyota Motor Corporation recall 5.2 million cars for problems related to unintended acceleration. New Orléans Mayor Ray Nagin initially called for a voluntary evacuation in the face of a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on the city. Pharmaceutical giant Merck voluntarily recalled its worldwide stock of Vioxx, spurred by a study that found patients who took the drug for at least 18 months incurred more heart attacks and strokes. Failures, poor choices, and faulty decision-making seemingly surround us.
But wait. Are we pushing the “F” word around a bit too much? Some think so. The Association Now blog post about failure gave rise to that notion. Consultant Jeffrey Cufaude at Idea Architects notes that failure is bantered around too often to refer to things not turning out as we had planned. “Failures no doubt do occur,” he wrote, “[They] are a necessary cost of trying to innovate in significant ways not done before, but we can’t refer to every situation that doesn’t hit a target goal as a failure.”
“If changing an unproductive habit, resolving a professional stumbling block, or making mistakes were as simple as being aware of them, we’d all be living perfect lives.”
For most, linear living is simply not possible. We live messy, imperfect lives in which mistakes; shortcomings, and outright failures stand along the most joyous, successful, and exuberant lives.
Change has always been part of our landscape. What is less recognized and rarely acknowledged today is the speed and complexity of change.There is a distinctive gap between how CEOs rate their ability to manage change successfully versus their expected need for it. Research conducted by the IBM Corporation reports the “change gap” has nearly tripled since 2006 jumping from 8% to 22% among CEO’s responding to the survey.
Fresh challenges are created as rapid change occurs throughout organizations as efforts to integrate a fast-moving array of new technologies, market opportunities, and people skills. Technological advances are reshaping value propositions, influencing products and services and changing how organizations interact with their members and customers.
As specialized information businesses, associations, and professional societies are well positioned to successfully get ahead of change and potentially drive it for their members and stakeholders. The key to doing so is to recognize that speed and urgency are the currency of the day.
“An imperfect swift decision may still offer greater benefits than a slow agonizing one when it comes to leveraging change, capturing new markets, and expanding the influence of your organization.”
Climbing the Decision Tree
There are challenging moments in every organization that most often arise surrounding the decision-making process. What do you think? Sounds like a good idea! Do we have enough data? What do our members/customers/stakeholders think? Have we tested our idea? What don’t we know? As the old adage goes, “where you stand, depends directly on where you sit.” Each of us comes to the decision-making process with our own experiences, bias, and expectations. Assuming you were raised in a democratic society, the deep-seated belief that you have a right to be heard might be one of your unconscious biases. There are dozens of other hidden biases that if left unexplored seed the ground for potential trouble.
Each of us makes dozens and dozens of decisions every day. It is easy to become complacent and overlook the incredibly complex dynamic that underlies each one. Many of our daily decisions are intuitive in nature–an apple is healthier than a candy bar. The interstate highway is slower in rush hour than surface streets. Revenues must exceed expenses to generate a profit. Our world is full of heuristics or “rules of thumb” by which we work.
Where Does the Culture Code Fit?
To combat natural biases in decision-making many organizations have expanded beyond mission and value statements to craft guiding principles intended to shape and influence individual and group decision-making. The $6.9 billion dollar Australian firm LendLease a leading retail and international property group under the leadership of its late Chairman Stuart Hornery did so in the 1990s.
Hornery put a point on the effort saying “if guiding principles are genuinely held and practiced throughout, the company will attract the best people to work for us, the quality of our work will attract the attention of customers, demand for our services will grow, and our global family will prosper—all of which contributes to delivering superior value for our shareholders.” Not-for-profits may not have shareholders in the legal sense–but clearly we do have stakeholders. Members, customers, legislators, regulators, and the communities they serve demand our greatest efforts and delivery of superior value.
Where Systems Come Into Play.
When it comes to understanding risk and the complexity of change and decision, looking carefully at systems thinking and systems theory can offer a valuable framework for understanding. Working from this framework offers the opportunity to examine your decision-making in the context of the whole system, recurring patterns and their relationship to sub-systems in motion throughout the organization.
“How many times have you or someone in your department made a decision only to discover that while you have successfully solved the problem, the decision has created an entirely different set of problems for someone else, another department or the organization at large?”
System thinking encourages you to view your organization systems from a broad perspective including overall structures, patterns and cycles, rather than seeing only specific events. Doing so oftentimes helps quickly find the real causes of risk in your organization. How one chooses to apply remedies is key to avoiding failure. Systems thinking focuses on the entire system, helping you work to find solutions that address as many problems as possible throughout your organization. The effect of those solutions is that they leverage improvement throughout the system.
When it comes to personal decision-making another sort of system is in play and it too relies on a broader understanding of your own experiences, preferences and biases. Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Prize recipient for Economic Sciences and author of Thinking Fast and Slow writes extensively about how we make day-to-day choices, and the fundamental systems most everyone uses in their thinking:
- System 1 Thinking – That’s our most intuitive form of thinking. We use it unconsciously in most cases and we rely on it to guide us through much of our day. This approach relies on “rules of thumb”, experience (known in their origin as mistakes) and “gut instinct” among other habits.
- System 2 Thinking – This is our slower, more conscious, effortful, and logical means of thinking. When you are carefully considering options, you are using System 2 thinking.
One of the greatest challenges busy people, especially managers and leaders face is the tendency or habit of falling back on Systems 1 thinking, when a Systems 2 analysis would really be far more productive and beneficial. As Kahneman points out, “Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives.” In your day-to-day leadership and life it’s worth considering which system you rely upon more and why. It might surprise you.
Intuition Versus Analysis
So what does any of this have to do with failure? Most of us believe we are capable of distinguishing between situations where we can safely rely on intuition from those that need more careful thought—but often we are wrong. In fact, most of us trust our intuition more than evidence suggests that we should. There’s a fascinating exploration of these challenges in Roger Shepard’s book Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and Other Anomalies (W. H. Freeman, 1990) If you want to test out your own intuition, visit Michael Bach’s website to explore the challenges of “turning the tables”. You can find them here.
The Rise of Inattention and Failure
Failure does not occur in a vacuum. In most instances, a failure is the result of several, perhaps dozens or even hundreds of decisions, and choices made along the way. Sometimes those decisions are enough to avoid outright failure but barely enough to create success. One of the great failures of leadership and management is that we tend to recognize and reward outcomes without much regard to the decision-making leading up to achieving those results. How much better would our successes or outcomes be, if we improved and assessed the quality of our decision-making along the way?
Creating a culture in which your team and colleagues invest time to think, decide, and assess their actions is vital to the healthy operation of your association. Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM when asked about success replied, “Would you like me to give you a formula for… success? It’s quite simple, really. “Double your rate of failure. You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success…it isn’t at all… you can be discouraged by failure — or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the far side.”
“The greatest shortfall of failure is simply our own unwillingness to learn from our own experiences and those of others.”
While many are reluctant to engage is a systematic study of failure, there is a treasure trove of insight to be gained from exploring and understanding the situation, circumstances, personalities, and mind-sets experienced by others in their most pressing moments of failure. How many times have you heard someone say, “I didn’t see that coming” or “We were completely blind-sided by the reaction to our plan”?
“I knew that would happen” is the classic “I told you so” framework following a significant event or failure. It’s easy to understand how people might think that way, especially in light of newly emerging research on cognitive behavior and thinking of adults.
“We miss things simply because we aren’t looking at them.” writes Drake Bennett in his article How Magicians Control Your Mind.
Bennett cites recent research by Gustav Kuhn, Alym Amlani, and Ronald A. Resnik offering insightful lessons about magic and the human mind such as the ability to control attention, to distort perception, and to influence choice. In their paper Toward a Science of Magic, the authors argue that the time has come to look at the scientific bases behind such phenomena.
If the idea of using magic tricks to understand risk and failure strikes you as a “stretch” you may want to reconsider. There is a growing library of research supporting the notion that some of our human abilities act to inhibit our certainty and understanding rather than expanding our grasp of complex data and images conveying information.
The Center for Disease Control reports that distracted driving caused 3,338 deaths and 421,000 injuries in the United States in 2012. “If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. “It’s like instantly aging a large number of drivers.”
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn,” said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems. Our results suggest that learning facts and concepts will be worse if you learn them while you’re distracted.” Our ability to discern risk and avoid failure is compromised by an increasingly technologically driven noisy and distracting environment. How do you resist and recover?
How Do You Recover from Failure?
Recovering from failure requires sufficient strength and ability to support your sense of well-being while managing the stresses brought about by failure. The term most often used to describe this circumstance is resilience. The Road to Resilience, a publication of the American Psychological Association and the Discovery Health Channel, offers a useful definition. “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means, “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”
The Road to Resilience offers several useful suggestions for ways to strengthen and build your own personal resilience including accepting help and support from those who care about you; changing how you interpret and respond to failures; accepting circumstances that cannot be changed by focusing on circumstances that you can; doing something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals; acting on adverse situations as much as you can; find ways to grow as a result of your struggles; nurture confidence in your ability to solve problems; avoid blowing events out of proportion; visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear; and paying attention to your own needs and feelings.
The key is to find ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience and overcoming failure.
Along pathways to success, leaders will find adversity, doubt, near wins, and near-misses. That’s a certainty. How you manage those distractions is what matters. Keld Jensen writing in Forbes magazine said it best. “Leaders understand, and even expect, that storms will come their way. They also realize that it’s how they handle the dark moments that gives them the internal strength to shine during their brightest ones.” Let’s get that shine on.