Friday, 10 April 2015

One loser in the UK election may be 'learning from failure'

English: Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Ca...

Like me, if you are in the UK, you are probably thoroughly fed up with the General Election hype and puff. But bear with me on this one...

Frances Maude will be a loss when he steps down as Cabinet Office Minister. He appears to be a rare beast, a dedicated public servant who is not afraid of upsetting people to get his job done, whether you be a senior Civil Servant or MP of any party. He was the guy charged with saving £4bn per year from government spending by 2020; he is widely acknowledged to be on track to do just that.

Of greater loss will be his refreshing approach to 'learning from failure'. My goodness there has been ample opportunity to so that. Maude talked to the Sunday Times about a new civil service prize he introduced in 2014...

"I wanted to call it the Frances Maude Award for Failure. The criteria were that you had done something that had failed but you had learnt from your mistakes. In the end we had to call it the 'Innovation Award' and 70 of the 80 nominations were for things that had worked. No one felt that they could say that they had failed, but one should not have to be brave or fearless to speak out... If you are honest, voluntarily, about when things haven't done well, then you build up some trust".

That is great leadership and a good start to organisations, particularly big ones, acknowledging that when you innovate, some degree of failure is inevitable. As Einstein said 'anyone who has never failed has never tried anything new'.

Maude's leadership was well intentioned, but not enough. A client I worked with instituted high profile 'Failure Fairs'. That's a bit like inviting someone to voluntarily put their head in village green stocks. People need to feel safe that by sharing their, perhaps painful, experience they will not be humiliated or punished.

The other thing that is needed is that the learning is not just that "you had learned from your mistakes".  If you make a mess-up, it hurts and it's unlikely that you will repeat it. What's needed is for Mr Maude's successor to figure out how to differentiate between lessons identified and lessons learned. In other words, what has systematically changed as a result of that learning being applied to business processes or rules.

Roll-on May 7th.

Disclosure: I was the private sector advisor to a UK Cabinet Office review of 'Major Government Project Failures' carried out in 2000. Lessons learned anyone?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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