When Shizuka Arakawa won the figure skating gold medal in the 2006 Olympic Games, her error free performance marked an achievement beyond the purely personal. The second oldest women to win a figure skating gold medal, she was also the first Asian women to do so. And she quite literally put something behind her on the way to this victory: her bottom, which she had landed on some 20,000 times on her long journey from beginner to Olympic champion.
Though doing so may have lacked dignity, there is a valuable lesson in her example, as Geoff Colvin pointed out in less than gentlemanly fashion in his book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else –
“Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.”
If Ms Arakawa provides a metaphorical illustration – rendered no doubt in black and blue – of the adage ‘no pain, no gain’, there is another aspect of her appetite for apparent failure that managers might wish to bear in mind. And those responsible for managing performance and innovation most particularly.
Viewed from the perspective of performance, learning and developing necessarily mean doing things that we have not done before. Whether or not we achieve Ms Arakawa’s level of mastery, we cannot expect to get things right at the first attempt and practice is a necessary component. There will be failures, and we will need both persistence and resilience.
Managing for success, or managing to avoid errors?
Put us in a workplace and in a manager’s chair, however, and we may swiftly forget these important lessons. Show us a string of small errors from a member of our team and we may decide that what we see is not an individual who is making progress and striving to develop and grow, but someone who is underachieving – and who therefore deserves either punishment or remedial action. And as we proceed to dole out either one or the other in response, we probably don’t often stop to ask ourselves what effect our actions might have on their enthusiasm to ultimately excel.
While we tell ourselves that we are managing performance, we may have a quite different effect: encouraging our team members to attempt only the level of performance that they have already mastered, safe from the threat of retribution. The uncomfortable truth – and its real discomfort is ultimately for the manager and the organisation – is that progress means that there will be failures and mistakes along the way as people take risks and chances. Any organisation has a responsibility for managing risk, but managing it out of existence comes at a very high price…
… or, to be precise, two costs. The first is an organisation with little appetite for risk, and therefore limited ability to progress. The second is a workforce that, by sidestepping circumstances that might incur a black mark or two, fails not only to develop new skills and capabilities but also to develop the personal resilience that comes from picking oneself up and dusting oneself down once in a while. And if that feels uncomfortable, remind yourself just how unforgiving the surface of an ice rink probably feels.
No chance to change without the space to fail
If our managerial responsibilities are not just for performance but innovation, the importance of allowing and managing for failure becomes critical. Innovation without risk is like a balloon without hot air: there is no possibility of lift-off. Indeed, a company whose success includes a very well-known hot-air balloon – Pixar, the creators of the 3D animated feature film Up, a film with so many accolades they have their own Wikipedia page – can give us all a few valuable tips.
Failure is not least among them. Even the company’s string of award-winning and groundbreaking films are a by-product of their initial focus on developing and producing CGI imaging software and hardware, a decision that almost bankrupted them.
And Up? If the plot is a lesson in companionship and the importance of adventure in giving life a sense of meaning, the story of the film’s development underlines the vital role that iteration plays in creativity and innovation. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, described its evolution from its first draft in his book, Creativity, Inc.:
“Only two things survived from that original version, the tall bird and the title: Up.”
Indeed, most creative endeavours require many process rounds to achieve their potential. It’s romantic, for example, to think of the novelist, sitting alone in a hushed room turning out words of genius, but that isn’t how it happens. A published novel will have been drafted, re-drafted several times by the author, reviewed by a commissioning editor, revised in response by the author (possibly several times), desk-edited for issues such as plot holes, failures of logic, consistency of naming and so on, revised again, copy-edited for grammar, style and typographic errors, checked as page proofs… Failures – or what we might prefer to call ‘bumps in the road’ – can occur at any of these stages, but risk remains essential: it’s the story we haven’t read before or the tale told in an excitingly unfamiliar way that holds our attention.
This reliance on risk is especially true at the earliest stages of a project, where it provides not only the necessary innovation but also the challenge to succeed. While it’s important to consciously avoid adding new risks at later stages – there will be enough unforeseen challenges without deliberately adding to them –ruling them out at the beginning can nullify any attempt at creativity.
But, as Ed Catmull explained in a 2014 Forbes interview, managing the risks that innovation requires also means managing people, and consciously managing them with innovation in mind:
“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them. […] It means being encouraging, of course, when someone comes up with an idea – a movie about a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, to use Ratatouille as an example – that may at first seem far-fetched. But it also means that when a far-fetched idea fails to pan out, you must make it clear in ways both explicit and implicit that there is no shame in that. It is only by trying new things that we can hope to create products that are original. Don’t just say those words; act like you believe them.”
Tips for innovation managers
- Make the safety zone bigger: if only fault-free performances earn reward and recognition, you encourage timid approaches that avoid not just risk not innovative or creative approaches; make sure feedback and recognition pays attention to those who tried, who pushed their thinking (and that of others), and offered challenge as well as compliance. It is those always ‘play it safe’ that might deserve your criticism
- Mistakes are opportunities: poorly-executed ideas or projects where relationships are badly managed or resources under-estimated are always likely to fail. In reviewing failure, strive to identify the reasons so that lessons can be learned. Where it is clearly the idea that was at fault, work with those responsible to enhance their ability to review future ideas more critically
- Manage the person as well as the project: failing or falling short hurts, and more so when the idea or the project we’ve been pursuing has been a personal one. As well as taking care to be fair to everyone in your assessments and feedback, be mindful that the employee’s sense of status may be bruised and they may feel less certain about their future
- Tomorrow is more important than yesterday: managing for innovation and performance is not about presenting people with their failures, but helping them put failures behind them. The project can be revised or replaced, but the person needs to continue – and, as far as possible, to thrive
To find out more, come to the World of Learning Conference seminar – Creating Creative Environments – that Liaquat Lal will be leading in Theatre 2 on Wednesday 19 October at 13.45. To find out more about all of ASK’s services or speak to one of our consultants, visit us at Stand G80 on 19-20 October 2016.