Failing to Learn…… learning to fail and using what you learn.

Failing to Learn…… learning to fail and using what you learn.

All hail failure! That’s when organisations and individuals can often learn the most. If I look back on my experience as an organization consultant   getting it wrong can be as if not more instructive than the sweetness of success as a catalyst of change. As my former external examiner, Professor Andrew Pettigrew pointed out, for an organisation it takes courage and a crisis real or constructed to change. My view is that this applies at an individual level; there’s nothing quite like the school of hard knocks. .

Floyd’s reply “We must always realise that failure should always be reframed as an opportunity to learn”

To be able evolve before crises hits is where elite teams/individuals will always outperform others.  I am always amazed at organisations who know there are faults in their procedures or protocols, training, or leadership and fail to adapt before an event/adversity strikes.  In many circumstances organisations have elaborate lessons learnt procedures and documentation from trg/oprerational events that clearly identify where there are operational gaps.  Yet they seem to never learn from these experiences. I have recently worked with a number of groups who refuse to evolve their thinking.  The saddest thing is that it is only a matter of time before there are many millions of pounds lost or indeed more importantly the loss of life.  “It will always depend on how good you as an individual or organisation actually want to be”?Reply ends

In the last blog I mentioned that I was going to elaborate on my experiences on the dark side of elite performers as well as expanding on the sporting entrepreneur, those who attained World Championship level. Before that let me share some observations of of best practice or recipe models of success. In the late eighties and early nineties Quality (Aka TQM) was the rage. England Rugby Captain Will Carling and Robert Heller (of Management Today) were a double act in expounding on how to develop Excellence.  Back then there was one specific conference that stopped me in my tracks. It was called Quality Ten Years on. Professor Suzaka from Tokyo University was asked a question about why he was sharing the Japanese Success story. He replied that he was only ‘telling us what we have done, not what we are planning to do.’ There was a pause …and besides you won’t do it anyway.’ Then later on he illustrated two Kanji characters which to Western eyes were identical. ‘What is the difference? This for copy,’ the audience chortled (thinking of those early motorcycles), ‘this for learn’ … a pregnant pause as he added the punchline ‘I happier to copy.’  Now if memory serves me in the Japanese educational system when children learn Kanji characters and brush strokes, they have to copy exactly, they have to complete the basics before they move on. As has been said in another context by Floyd ‘the basic things done well will always give you an edge in life.’ In that context I definitely believe in best practices for the basics….always but not as a panacea on their  for ultimate success. The basics are pre-conditions but not enough for elite performance where something called judgement  based on intuition (compressed experience as a guru from my KM days Larry Prusak calls it) appears to be pivotal in some (but not all) arena’s.

Floyd’s response. This is sometimes where people make the mistake of underestimating why we do basic skills (advanced trg is basic skills done exceptionally well). Under pressure we resort to best practice or the most appropriate solution in our minds to survive in a difficult situation.  Basic skills give you a foundation of performance that will hold up under extreme pressure and enable you to be free and creative in difficult circumstance. To be in the eye of the storm and find solutions whether they are novel or straightforward (the most appropriate solutions are generally very straight forward, indeed when you watch an elite performer they as simply performing their skills effortlessly). In effect basic principles allow you to move out of chaos with intuition to guide you. Basics are not inhibiting they are the basis of total freedom of thought. Resonse ends.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not against Best Practice models. They have their uses. In the nineties working with the Chairman of the Company (Secret of my success I played tennis against the French MD) we presented to Tom Stewart (then at Fortune later editor of The Harvard Business Review) on the subject. He wrote a column called the Leading Edge that ended up, with us presenting on Best Practice Sharing in Kota Kinabolu for the management team of a US pharmaceutical company. Their main goal was to export the best practice concept of depression to mainland China! The point is best practice, looking what people do well, an attempt to capture what works and replicate is a noble aim, but in reality where organisations and individuals are concerned context is king. You might be able to six stigma the basics, constipate yours organisation with banal outcome oriented  metric mayhem, provide  charts for every occasion  but outside repetitive events where there is uncertainty and ambiguity something more is required. In this connection  Dave Snowden the high priest of complexity (and a Welsh Rugby supporter to boot), claims that worst practices are more important in complex, unpredictable situations because it is better to know what to avoid than to attempt to replay a ‘best practice’ that worked in an entirely different context. And it is certainly true that people, especially in the tabloids, but also let’s be frank in organisations remember and retell stories of failure better than successes. We used to say ‘don’t tell people your problems, half the people don’t care, the rest are glad you’ve got them.’  The Chairman confided in me that when he was working for the Ecole Nationale educated MD a problem shared was a problem doubled.

The point is you can learn a lot from people about how they react when they mess up, the highest profile failure they have had, and what stage that was in their career. So why not embrace failure. It makes me wonder too who individually and as a team learned most from the Autumn internationals?

Floyd’s response.  In the world of high performance we can expect too much of individuals/teams/organisations especially when they are developing their skill set and belief structure (is it surprising to know that elite soldiers generally only become so when they are 29 yrs of age).  The test of the England rugby team will be when they compete at the World Cup, only then can people be held accountable for performance and management.  It takes time to build a team especially one that works well at all levels.  The best teams also ensure that team members who are now not performing as we as others are replaced when the team is at the top of its performance not on the slide.  The best teams will continually bring in fresh and new talent alongside those with experience.  This is when teams and organisations need to understand that they are not a club where once you have paid your membership you can rest on your laurels but are constantly driven to pursue excellence. Resonse ends.

In part that’s why (not the Autumn internationals)  I examined worst practices;  I explored three high  profile cases of ‘elite’ if that’s the right word,  performers (that’s the right word )  who wasted their talent and ended up on the wrong side of the law. I did it the old fashioned sociological way, hanging out with them.  Here are my four main takeaways:  1. Don’t take on the establishment, it’s just not worth it. 2. Show me the hero, show me the sponsor and I’ll show you the success (or not) 3. Let the Network of support (or hangers on) do the talking and helping (or not) 4. Fame and reputation as someone at the top of their game  can be a double edged sword. Reputations, warranted or not stick. Just be careful what you wish for! As Richard Olivier emphasises when you skirt around the edges of fame, there is a sense of excitement, reflected glory becomes it own drug. 5. Finally these people like many stars and business heroes have a mythic quality. There is a narrative surrounding them, a story that in the telling and retelling masks reality. Their followers believe in the myth not through a rational process, but through devotion. Their detractors see what they want to see. Only outsiders can observe what’s happening and you definitely can’t believe all you hear about them! What I have to say is that prison is where as one said to me you pick up Worst Practices. How others got caught. What not to do. Floyd’s response.  There is nothing wrong with having a run  in with the establishment or the law (once or twice) but that is for another blog! Response ends.

More importantly what the experience taught me most was that in order to access the elite you had to have a member of that elite ‘vouch for you’. Trust counts, until you develop that you get a best foot forward version of success.  Further one of the worst practices I observed of those who were successful, but didn’t maximise their talent, was that they were their own worst enemies in ‘challenging’ the establishment or needing attention from others. They were pumped up on inflated self-belief, (that had helped them feel invulnerable and make it)unrealistically high principled, didn’t know when to compromise, had questionable advisers, or didn’t listen to good advice and judgement was lacking.  There was limited natural curiousity. They might have been right but they ‘forgot the rules of the game’……if they had ever served an apprentice to learn them.

Floyd’s response.  This is a key element of negotiation, communication, leadership and also understanding of others.  We have to be aware of the environment we are working within and seek to influence it from within the system.  However, there must also be a red line that we are not prepared to travel across, where we are prepared to walk away. That is where ethos, values and courage play their part (it is very easy to say I am staying to influence when really we are staying because we do not have the courage to stand up and fight for what we believe).  Most people are able to have wonderful values and beliefs when things are going well but they change them very quickly when things go badly. We must also understand that although talented people will always pursue excellence not everyone else does and therefore we must lead them there. Response ends.

Back to the notion of the  Sporting Entrepreneur, here my main focus was to borrow a phrase to ‘use what I had learned.’ I went on a quest to discover world champions and those who had played at international level who were natural borne entrepreneurs. And in this I profiled an eclectic (and before anyone says I told you so ..too eclectic) group of champions from aerobatics, through to cricket, canoeing, cycling, hockey, rowing, running, rugby, swimming, skiing, motor sports. For good measure I profiled one of the youngest ever World Champion sommeliers. I met a couple who are hero’s in their own country and one in particular is destined for greatness. When I met him we were in the company of Blair, Tutu, and their ilk. Along with David Puttnam he was the best a speaker that day. They were only ones who wrote their own speeches and spoke from the heart. As for his reading of politics, and the link to sports and society-  worldly to say the least! …..and I studied politics. Again with most but not all World Champions travel broadens the horizons.

Here’s some initial findings and I have to stress they are initial – I’m still learning.

Optimism Counts

One of the characteristics that distinguish elite performers is the high level of optimism that propels them forward. Compared to the managerial norm they are likely to take a positive view. It might be true that ‘nothing succeeds as much as success’, but ‘nothing is quite as contagious as optimism’. It might not be that optimism or enthusiasm is the sine qua non of success – other factors count – but as a generalisation it appeared to make a substantial difference.

Self-Belief Scores

Closely related to optimism is the role of self-belief. The world champions amongst the sample typically confronted and overcame severe setbacks such as injury, illness, parental divorce or loss relatively early in their careers. In general their significantly higher self-belief tended to accelerate and sustain success. Guess what, most of them came back stronger. What was also revealed is how a lack of self-belief seemed to be a major obstacle to elite performance. Sportspeople who didn’t quite make the grade or fulfil their potential lacked the same high level of optimism or self-belief. That said as mentioned earlier excessive self belief bites back and carries in it the seeds of self-destruction.

Vision to Action

Whilst passion, optimism and high self-belief were important for elite performers, they were insufficient on their own. Competence and delivery skills were equally crucial. Amongst elite sports performers there was a consistently stronger link between their strategic perspective, ability to learn and to perform. They tended to take a long-term outlook – useful if you want to achieve gold at the Olympics. They were able to develop a compelling personal vision that helped them ‘through the dark times to the light of dawn’. Generally they were highly receptive, learning oriented, adaptable, open to feedback, and part of the ‘action faction’. They prioritised to make things happen.

In their analytical approach a surprising discovery was a high proportion, particularly those who had experienced leadership or coaching roles, deployed probing questions more than the norm. They also tended to be more intuitive and empowering, with stronger leadership skills. Some, but not all, were obsessive in their approach and, depending on the nature of their sport, selectively attentive to detail. Most importantly, as required they could retain focus as well as composure and deliver under the spotlight. Curiously for me it seemed the degree of mental toughness would vary according to the sport. They seemed through their approach to create their own luck or at least minimise risks to the achievement of their dreams.

One initially surprising finding was that despite limited experience of the commercial world a significantly high percentage of elite performers came across as ‘natural born entrepreneurs’ just like Bob Wilson. Across five of the six dimensions that drive entrepreneurial success identified by David Hall the trend was that they rated themselves higher than the management norm. They were on a par with leading business entrepreneurs in ‘getting in the zone’ through to ‘seeing possibilities’, ‘staying in the zone’, ‘opening up to the world’ and ‘building capability’. I found an amazing number of exceptionally talented elite performers who had operated at world champion level possessed skills in creating superior opportunities. Of the sports that stood out as having proportionally higher business and entrepreneurial talent rugby stood out. (more of which later)

In fact this sociable, partnership oriented group made more productive use of networks through purposeful (as opposed to ad hoc) networking. Many had an incredibly broad contact base, most actively managed these networks, although some described how they had to force themselves to network and a few  were naive. Those who represented their countries tended to have an incredible array of connections including captains of industry, leaders in politics, opinion formers and media celebrities as well as counterparts in other sports. They moved in high circles and these connections developed and endured over time.

Mentors Matter

It also emerged that the role of mentors came out  as crucial. Many of the elite performers were encouraged early on by someone they respected: as Freud might say, such people ‘allowed a seed to blossom’. Often it was a teacher or coach, and occasionally a relative or parent, who endorsed their talent and contributed to a sense of purpose. Sometimes it was a hero who provided a key and enduring inspiration. Many cited the often serendipitous influence at turning points in their career of mentors who acted as catalysts, radically accelerating their career progress, believing in them and simply asking penetrating questions about what they wanted to achieve and what they were truly passionate about.

As for using what I had learned it reinforced to me the importance of networking to success. Rob Cross no relation but thanks Dan for introducing us is the leader in the field and it forced me to reassess my own network. Consistent with other research findings, in which more diversified networks are associated with early promotion, career mobility and managerial effectiveness he found that what distinguished high performers were larger and more diversified networks. And so did I in a sporting context.

Coincidentally it’s a subject I had written about in the past as well as successfully deployed it to great effect. It was

about time to apply it once more and refresh and strengthen my network. Time to use what in five easy pieces to use what I had  learned. And furthermore it worked.

Now cold over here and I’m off to see an elite at the Reform Club for a Cello recital in aid of HealthProm  who work with local communities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to improve health and social care for vulnerable women, the new born and children in the region.. (on this let me confess it’s not my regular habitat but blog as blag, the doorman recognises me through my ‘patron’ and maestro of a mentor.  What did I say earlier- optimism counts, turn vision into action, self-belief, probing questions and mentors matter. This is going to help drive the research to another dimension; into where it counts action and results.

There’s nothing wrong with laser focus and a self-fulfilling prophecy of success. That’s the problem with adding a dose of reality to a blog. At least I suppose if it is a Worst Practice networking endeavour then I’ll learn. And I guess Floyd you’ll force me to do an After Action Review whatever happens.

If you  have been thanks for listening.

Richard Cross

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