When Failure Is Not Acceptable: 3 Lessons From a Global Management Consulting Firm

Plenty of people say we need to fail fast and often: After all, Silicon Valley loves failures.

Plus, every successful person has failed, most of them numerous times. Most have failed a lot more often than you or I. (In part, that’s why they’re successful now.)

So yeah: Failure is a good thing.

That’s one of the lessons from Fast Times: How Digital Winners Set Direction, Learn, and Adapt, a book the authors (all from McKinsey & Company) say is for people who are “frustrated by the slow pace and limited ROI of their digital transformations, and are unsure what’s holding them back.”

So yeah: It’s a book for all of us — full of quick (yet surprisingly deep) perspectives and strategies that can be applied to any business or leadership role.

Sometimes, failure is not acceptable.

According to the authors, failure doesn’t cut it:

  • When the thinking is lazy or flawed. Taking risks is fine, but not simply for risk’s sake. Like at Amazon, where a six-page narrative describing the product and a comprehensive look at potential customer questions and reactions is required.
  • When there is no way to track progress and, more important, to adjust to results.
  • When people don’t share or act on what they’ve learned.

After all, a lesson isn’t a lesson unless it’s actually learned. Research shows people learn much more from other people’s failures than their successes. Negative information commands more attention than positive information. Negative information is processed more deeply. Negative information is remembered longer

Take intelligent risks, track progress so you can quickly adjust and adapt, and when you do fail, share what you’ve learned so the people around you know what to do differently next time, too.

Sometimes, remote is too remote.

A McKinsey study showed that productivity decreases as team member locations increase.

Here’s a list from that survey, showing how an increase in team locations can hurt productivity:

  • 1 location: 100 percent (assumes everyone is in the same location)
  • 2: 76 percent
  • 3: 63 percent
  • 4: 57 percent
  • 5: 52 percent
  • 6: 48 percent

Yep: A team with members spread across six locations will be less than half as productive as a team in one location.

Granted, the drop-off slows after three locations. So if you want to add a fourth team member from somewhere else, the impact will be relatively small.

But what the finding really points out is the importance of collaboration tools — and of finding ways to use them well. As Adam Grant says, “Successful remote teams aren’t in constant contact. They alternate between independent work and rapid-fire bursts of communication. Instead of sending messages at all hours, they focus energy by agreeing on times to check inboxes and respond rapidly.”

Or as the authors say, “Agile ways of working can’t take hold unless s they are supported by stable processes.”

Try to keep your team members “together” as much as possible — and then find ways to let them work the way they work best.

Sometimes, you really do need to walk the talk.

You share your vision. You share your mission. You set the stage, set the table, write the music from which everyone is supposed to read.

Still, talk is cheap. No one will embrace your vision — no one will actively support and work towards a goal — unless you do first.

According to the authors, people will change their mindsets and behaviors only if you also:

  • Role model: Actually see leaders, colleagues, and staff behave differently.
  • Foster understanding and conviction: Actually understand what is being asked of them — and why it makes sense.
  • Create reinforcing mechanisms: Actually see that processes, systems, and structures support the goals they are asked to support.
  • Develop talent and skills: Provide the training and skills necessary to achieve goals.

All of which makes sense in a Captain Obvious kind of way.

But how often do companies back up their goals with actual tools, processes, and cultures that make it possible to achieve those goals? If I’m your employee, I may want to increase sales by 100 percent, as you ask.

But if I don’t see you and other people actively supporting that goal, providing the tools and training, helping me understand why it matters, then why should I try?

And even if I do, I’m unlikely to succeed. Wishing and hoping is never a good strategy.

No matter how hard you may wish. Or hope.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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