Leaders Clarify Risk Opportunities

We talk a lot about creating environments where innovation and creative problem-solving can happen. This involves risk. We’re supposed to never punish mistakes; instead, we are to learn from them. However, this can be idealistic. There are times when the stakes are high enough that failure can cause serious problems, not just learning opportunities.

People need to know: When can mistakes be made, and when can they not?

I’m a part of planning and preparing for large group trips to the theme parks of Central Florida. In preparation for some of those trips, I have a process where I have to label lanyard pouches for up to 300 people. I label each lanyard pouch with a person’s name and other information. Then I insert tickets and vouches which are valued at nearly a thousand dollars. When I finish, I go through an elaborate process involving double-checking and triple-checking the contents. If I’ve made a mistake, it’s very hard to correct after the fact. There is no room for error in this project. A 99.5% success rate isn’t good enough.

Of course not every situation is like that one. In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman proposes an experiment for leaders called Make Room for Mistakes. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Make two headings on a whiteboard or flip chart: Okay to Fail and Not Okay to Fail.
  • Using sticky notes, ask all present to list scenarios in each category.
  • Allow the group to discuss each sticky note. Each time, put the note under the heading at first blush. Then move it back and forth as you debate.
  • Work hard to get as many as possible in the Okay to Fail category.
  • Then, work to discover themes, rather than specific scenarios, to define your threshold.

Theme examples:

In the Okay to Fail category might be

  • When customers are not harmed
  • Our learning outweighs the cost

In the Not Okay category might be

  • When our values are clearly violated
  • Could end a career

DeAnne and I began this process recently. It’s easy to do, and the conversations can be just as interesting as the final results. A big theme which emerged for us is that it’s way more okay to fail each other than it is to fail our clients.

A brief example

A notion I got from Mark Horstman of Manager Tools: When you delegate a task, your delegate doesn’t have to do it perfectly; they just have to do it as well as you did the first time without getting fired.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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