Is risk encouraged or discouraged in your organization? What happens when someone makes a mistake?
When I talk with a potential client with regard to his or her organization, these are questions I like to ask because they provide me with an indication of just how much of a learning organization it may or may not be. Peter M. Senge describes this concept in great detail in his book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.”
So much of organizational health is determined by how these two questions are answered because a healthy organization is one that knows calculated risks and mistakes are necessary in order to grow and prosper.
Risk is inherent in business and most businesses would never have started if their founders were risk averse. As companies get larger, control often increases to help maintain structure and order. It can also stifle risk and the resulting innovation.
Organizations that try to minimize mistakes are also likely to minimize innovation. Those that accept mistakes as part of growth, however, are likely to reap more innovation.
Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating the next iPhone: it can also be about finding new materials to minimize production costs, restructuring the workforce to be more efficient, or expanding into new and unproven markets.
Innovation requires being open to risk and allowing for mistakes.
So much of risk taking is the ability to make oneself vulnerable. Being vulnerable can often lead to criticism, ridicule and embarrassment. It can also lead to creativity and spur new ideas.
Vulnerability is all too rarely seen in our leaders. However, I believe it actually demonstrates great strength of character and brings about loyalty.
In Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” she discusses the importance of our ability to be vulnerable. She argues that this vulnerability is not a weakness, but instead a path to courage, engagement and meaningful connection. And vulnerability can spark a spirit of truth—and trust—in organizations as well as our families, schools and communities.
Vulnerability is what unites us as humans and, contrary to popular belief, when demonstrated by leaders, actually inspires us to follow them.
In her book, Dr. Brown has 10 questions that help uncover the health of an organization:
- What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
- Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
- What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
- Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
- What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
- What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
- What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
- How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
- How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
- What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?
These questions can be difficult because they will cause those answering them to be vulnerable. However, the process can lead to great insight and perhaps fundamental shifts inside the organization. Ultimately, discussing them with a large group could reap huge benefits and begin to help heal the organization.
One of my favorite quotes is by the writer Anais Nin who said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” What if rather than holding back and keeping yourself from showing your vulnerability, you brought it forward? This would take great courage, but it would also free you from what holds you back and expand your life.
Is it risky? You bet. But there may be no better way to transform yourself and your organization to become healthy. And a healthy you in a healthy organization will bring about needed innovation.