Several months ago, my colleague Rachel Happe from the Community Roundtable invited me to facilitate a discussion with members about the issues that swirl around organizational adoption of social media. I told her I wanted to talk about the "f" word (failure).
So, we came up with this topic: "Creating a Culture that is not Afraid to Fail." I thought this would be a great opportunity to reflect on some of my recent blog posts on this topic as well as gain new insights from others who work on social media in a corporate (and nonprofit) setting as well as my network.
I'm defining failure as a social media strategy or program implementation that wasn't perfect or didn't work as well as you expected especially the first few times you did it. This happens quite frequently with social media, especially in the early stages.
We set unrealistic outcomes, don't have a methodology for learning or sloppy strategy implementation. We get poor results. We're quick to proclaim that social media doesn't work, feel some shame, and drop it. We look at the wrong measures or unrealistic outcomes. We don't value the learning and use that insight to improve the social media strategy the second or third or fourth time around.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Quinn Patton, an evaluation guru, speak at the Packard Foundation. I captured his talk in this blog post "What do Maori Creation Stories Have in Common With Social Media?"
He described the challenges of adapting evaluation methods to non-Western systems in developing countries because evaluation has traditionally been deeply rooted in the Western ways of thinking. He started to collect "creation stories" to explain the difference between traditional approaches (you create a program, implement it, and collect data to measure its success) versus developmental evaluation (an evaluation that gathers information to help you improve the program.)
He shared the creation story of Maori people.
the beginning, father sky and mother earth - embraced. Such a fierce
embrace - only darkness was in between them. Children were born into
this space but they became unhappy and plotted to push the parents
apart. It became clear that they would have to join together and need
the strength of the oldest. A lot of bickering followed and failed
attempts by the younger siblings. Having observed failed attempts,
the oldest said said they would have to put their backs into it - back
against father sky and feet against mother earth. The push the parents
apart. Father sky was crying - and that became rain. Pushing apart
parents, had exposed the nakedness of his mother. He began to plant
trees to hide her body. They had never planted a tree before. First
they tried roots in the air, leaves in ground. It failed. They tried
laying them on the ground. Finally they succeeded by planting the
roots in the ground. They then grew forests and the eldest child
became the god of the Forrest.
Patton points out that they were not sure what they were trying to get to or the result. They had a general sense, but had some learning before getting it right. This is the essence of developmental evaluation. I see this as very similar to the listen, learn, and adapt process that you need to use for social media strategy.
A big question is how do you get people in your organization to value this learning versus viewing it as a failure or waste? How do get past the fear of failure? To prepare
for this discussion, I posed this question on my Facebook status and Twitter: "How
do you create an organizational culture that is not afraid to fail? It was one of the most commented status alerts and responded to questions on Twitter that I've had a while.
Here's what I learned:
(1) Must come from the top: reward learning
Don Bartholomew points out that culture must come from the top and that leadership needs to reward taking risks versus punishing failure. As Roger Carr says reward innovation regardless of the outcome. Danny Blue suggests that leaders create opportunities to work on experimental projects and hindsight everything. From every failure there is something to learn. You take the learning from the last failure and you build something awesome out of it. Scott Bechtler-Levin said on Twitter in less than 140 characters: "Change happens when the desire for gain is greater than the fear of loss."
(2) Unpack the fear of failure through internal discussions
I recently came across an article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (no relation) from the Harvard Business School called "To Master Change, First Dread It" She describes the stress and feelings of lost control that change in organizations engenders. She goes on to say that the stress leads to paralysis. She offers a counter-intuitive tip for moving past it:
A counter-intuitive tip for mastering change is to start by wallowing in the feelings of dread it arouses. The sheer nail-biting horror of it all. Get in touch with every negative aspect, all the things that could go wrong. Then figure out a way to get that negative force on your side. In short, "Dream your worst nightmare and invest in it."
I think this is the key to adoption and social media success. To create your social media guidelines, examine the worst possible scenario, ask what if questions, wallow in all your fears, etc. I call this putting a smiley face on the screamer. One of the best methods to remove fear is to encourage social media literacy through personal use.
Holly Hight has a good case study on how her organization got past the fear through discussion in this post "When Controlling the Message Stifles Community"
(3) Make learning the norm
Anne Yurasek says "You need to create a set of agreed upon norms around how failure is viewed and experienced by your organization and then it's about monitoring if the norms are reflective of behavior. " Steve Heye asks, "What is the reaction is to a failure? Is it blame or a reflection to see what could have been done differently?." As Margaret Egan notes, it is important that leadership creates a culture of questioning, where learning is paramount and failure will be a given and Christine Lu says it is all about having people in your organization that the personality trait of enables them to take risks and learn.
(4) Emphasize what works
Jeff Jackson pointed to examples from healthcare and airline industries which have implemented culture changes around failure for years, with varying degrees of success. In healthcare, terms are used like blamefree environment, failure analysis, and responsible reporting. He also points to a growing trend to adopt appreciative inquiry which focuses on creating more of what works best (failure is fully accepted, but not searched out, nor studied).
(5) Start small, early, and reiterate
Claire Murray suggests starting small, as in one division or group. It helps lay the overall groundwork, iron out some of the wrinkles, and provide a model to follow. As in any venture like this, it requires managers who can accept the word from the ground, criticism, and who are not afraid to share. In this morning's email, Chris Brogan suggested that getting past the fear of failure means starting small, fail fast, and start again.
Tom gives an example of real life resistance in his organization.
How has your organization gotten past the fear of failure that effective social media strategy requires?