The Curiosity Chronicles

Musings on Meaning.
I'm Paul Bennett. I work at IDEO. I'm a designer. I'm curious.

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  • June 14, 2012 11:03 pm

    Curious About…Failure.

    (From my Chinese Column, as usual, presented in its original Mandarin and English.)

    Years ago, I was asked by a large corporation to come and talk to their executive team. They had experienced a few bad years, their pipeline of new products had dwindled to almost nothing, their stock price had dropped and generally there was a prevailing sense that they were in a downward spiral. The executive team was desperate for an innovation “silver bullet” that could reverse the decline and had asked IDEO to come in and run a session to help diagnose the problem.

    Sitting in their large, formal and overbearing conference room and asking them questions about what they felt was happening, it became immediately apparent that something important was not being said aloud. The CEO, who we later discovered had started at the same time as the decline, spoke first, interrupted and contradicted almost every comment and went out of his way to remind every single person in the room, including us, that he was the most important person there. One of my colleagues, a much kinder and more diplomatic soul than I, asked the CEO if it would be possible for us to get a few minutes alone with just the executive team, and would he mind stepping out of the room.

    All of a sudden, the dam broke and a cascade of complaints, frustrations and pent-up anger came tumbling out and we found ourselves in the role of therapists, or perhaps more accurately, grief counselors. The entire organization had ground to a halt because of one simple fact: people were terrified of trying anything new for fear of failure. It seems the CEO felt that everyone needed to be “successful or ship out,” and had fired several people for speaking out, experimenting or trying new processes, ideas or innovations. It was a case of: demonstrate immediate success or find a new job. The entire business had become paralyzed through fear of trying.

    ‘Failure’ is very loaded word, and I want to set the record straight before I go any further. I am not suggesting that anyone is reckless, that is certainly not my intent. Reckless abandonment of human, technical or business constraints of any kind is crazy. But any window into the great inventions and innovations of our time shows that the road to success is littered with failures, attempts, experiment, and most importantly, the learnings from all of these. Advancement of an organization requires cycles of success, failure, learning and reflection – a reflection of what happened, what the implications are, and what it means for you. What you have learned. Non-reflective organizations become self-fulfilling prophecies – inward looking, fearful, and often have a tangible sense of inertia that can become all pervasive like the example above – suddenly there is simply no energy behind new ideas, and new ways of acting; ultimately leading to no growth of any form -  be it ideas, talent or revenue.

    One critical aspect to all of this is leadership, and in this case I mean specifically from the top. So, when I draw IDEO’s organizational chart, I do not put myself near the top of the pyramid but rather turn the pyramid upside-down and place myself at the bottom. My role is not to control the people below me but to provide buoyancy and support for them to excel. So with that in mind I have a proposal for all the CEOs out there: rethink your title from Chief Executive Officer to another CEO – that of Chief Enabling Officer. Make your job be about enabling buoyancy and providing the space for people, ideas and futures to grow, and not a command-and-control top-down set of behaviors that engender fear, inertia and second-guessing. Reward learning and embrace failure.

    My favorite example of this in action is one of our best-ever clients, AG Lafley, who was for several years the CEO of Proctor & Gamble. P&G experienced an amazing growth spurt while he was at the helm, and having both seen and been a part of this, I can say without question that the reason is that he quite simply removed the fear from the organization. Meetings felts like exchanges of ideas between equals; everyone, including Lafley contributed their ideas without fear of judgment or derision, nobody senior shut the others down, there was a real sense of everyone’s ideas being valued. Suddenly, the body language of P&G was one of buoyancy, belief and bravery. And more to the point, their business thrived, with every brand from laundry to beauty; they were innovating, collaborating and growing. Lafley himself demonstrably took a shelf in his office and removed all his prestigious advertising awards and fancy trophies and replaced them with a set of cardboard prototypes that we had made together for a project about carpet cleaning. What this said more loudly than any corporate missive was: “I value great ideas, at any stage. Be brave, and do not fear failure.”

    Basketball star, Michael Jordan put it best when he said: “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.

    To trying. To failing. To learning. To succeeding.





    所有这些现象中,领导力起着一个关键的作用,这里具体指的是最高层领导。这也是为什么我在画IDEO的企业架构图时,往往不会把自己放在金字塔的最高层,而是把整个金字塔倒过来让自己处在最底端。因为我的职责并不是去控制比我级别低的同事,而是要为他们提供支持,将他们推向一个能够施展才华的舞台。带着这样一种认识,我在此建议所有的CEO们重新思考如何从“首席执行官”(Chief Executive Officer)转变为“首席赋能官”(Chief Enabling Officer),将自己的职责定位在为员工、创意以及未来的发展提供能力支持和培养空间,而不是自上而下发号施令,让人产生畏惧、缺乏斗志或再度推测。要奖励学习,拥抱失败。

    我最推崇的一个实践例子就是A.G. 拉夫雷(A.G. Lafley),他是我至今为止最棒的客户之一,曾多年担任宝洁公司CEO。拉夫雷掌舵时,我亲眼见证了宝洁的迅猛发展并参与其中,我完全有理由说,宝洁当时的飞黄腾达正是因为拉夫雷果断地剔除了公司的畏惧感。工作会议更像是同事之间的平等交流,包括拉夫雷在内的每个人都可以贡献自己的点子而不用去担心会受到评判或嘲笑,没有人会仗着自己的权位而打压其他人,在那里你可以真切地感受到每个人的想法都会得到尊重。一时间,宝洁的做法上升为一种支持、信念和勇敢。而更为重要的是,企业从洗涤到美容的各个品牌都实现了业绩的繁荣增长。公司上下不断地创新、合作和成长。拉夫雷更是挪走了自己办公室书架上的所有标志着个人荣誉的广告奖状和一个个漂亮的奖杯,取而代之的是我们为其地毯清洁项目制作的一整套纸板模型。这种亲历亲为的做法比任何企业口号都要铿锵有力地传递出这样一种呼声:“我注重伟大的创意,任何时候都是如此。要敢作敢为,不要害怕失败。”










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