Failure: It is all in the definition

The new business context requires L&D organizations to experiment, innovate and transform. However, this requires trying out new ways of structuring the learning organization, designing learning products, delivering learning and partnering with business. Often, L&D leaders shy away from introducing these big, bold new ideas. The key obstacle is that many mature organizations treat failure as a weakness. However, successful startups have adopted a different point of view. For them, failure is nothing more than an evidence based correction to an assumption- better to know sooner, rather than later.

Too often, L&D’s limited resources are misspent. As Peter Drucker has been quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It is from this perspective that failure becomes a virtue. None of us likes to fail. Nevertheless, in the context of operating successfully in today’s business environment, not only is failure acceptable… it is required.

“Fail often. So, you can succeed sooner.”

– Tom Kelley, Ideo partner

Let us begin by acknowledging that experiments can be difficult in a large company. Unlike startups there is often little ability to take a let’s-try-some- things-and-see-what-sticks attitude. This can challenge any organization tasked with innovating within an established company. In times to come, we are hopeful that this limiting factor will lessen as more companies, of all sizes, recognize the need for increased innovation in all aspects of the business.

However, for now, L&D organizations in mature companies may continue to relate to failure with fear. Having worked so hard to build credibility, L&D leaders might consider failure as a step backwards. I strongly recommend that L&D leaders change their perspective on failure. By properly recognizing failures, L&D’s successes become even more powerful in generating executive, manager, and learner buy-in. Two keys to this are turning failures into learnings and being transparent.

When Viewed in the Right Light…

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur now teaching entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Columbia. He has studied what he calls the stages of startup failure.

Stage 1: Shock and Surprise

Stage 2: Denial

Stage 3: Anger and Blame

Stage 4: Depression

Stage 5: Acceptance

Stage 6: Insight and Change

While failure for L&D is rarely as final as it is for startups, the stages remain relevant, and both startups and L&D must push to achieve stage 6 as quickly as possible. What others refer to as a ‘failure’ is better described as a ‘major lesson.’ This lesson is one that can only be learned by trying. L&D must turn its failures into learnings. This is the only way by which the odds of delivering unmistakable value next time improve. According to Nick Casado, a computer networking star who sold his startup for over a billion dollars, the true skill is “to learn to embrace failure — not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that, I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned, and hit reset.”

Show Your Scars

The final principle of handling failures well is to be transparent. This transparency extends to the L&D team, stakeholders, and even other learning professionals. For startups, this sharing of ‘major lessons’ has become part of the culture. CB Insights, a research firm “that helps corporations guess less and win more” has amassed and shared over 200 startups’ “post mortems” in the hope that startups in the future will make new mistakes, not repeat old ones.

L&D conferences are full of best practice case studies and chest thumping showcases. L&D leaders must participate in these conferences, not just to listen to others’ successes, but also to fearlessly acknowledge their own failures. How about seminars on “10 ways I screwed up our roll out” or “3 easy ways for upsetting your executive sponsor”.

CLO as Founder

The role of the CLO in 2021 looks a lot like a startup founder.

“Will the founder always strive to do great work that is legendary, with people who are spectacularly awesome? Will this commitment translate to recruiting amazing people who want to work with the founder and each other? Have you ever been in a situation where you and a team were pursuing total excellence? A great founder will not just seek this or hope for this, he or she will demand this.”

– Mike Maples, Founding Partner at Floodgate, Investor in Twitter, Lyft, Sonos….

Today’s companies are being transformed by multiple disruptions: technology, digitization, volatility, diminishing geographic boundaries, tougher competition, more demanding customers, and skill shortages.  These disruptions are mandating new approaches to all aspects of business.

As businesses battle these disruptions, L&D organizations need to go through their own transformation. A transformation that enables them to create unmistakable value for their companies. This transformation is more than just a step change. It will require L&D organizations to think afresh and recalibrate their teams, products & services, value proposition, execution model and stakeholder communication.

Just as the success of a startup is reliant on its founder, the success of the transformation of L&D depends on its leaders acknowledging the need for transformation and then taking on the role as founders of the new L&D.

Chief Learning Officer 2.0

In 1991, when Jack Welch made Steve Kerr GE’s (and possibly the world’s first) Chief Learning Officer, the business world and the world of learning looked very different. A quarter of a century later, it is time to take a fresh look at the position and the key role it plays in ensuring that learning is running at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. There are three primary roles for a founder of a startup that should be the focus for the CLO as well. These are; define and keep the vision & value proposition, attract and retain the best talent for their team, and grow the investment.

With a focus on these three critical roles, leading CLO’s will have a fighting chance in these rapidly changing times. (more to come…)

Go Ahead and Try

Experimentation is a fundamental activity for startups. Startups are leaping into a great unknown. Does anybody want to use my product? Will anybody pay for my product? How are we going to build this product? Startups are a pile of assumptions.

The goal of successful startups is to, as quickly as possible, prove or disprove assumptions and turn them into facts. They do this through experiments. In addition to the value of turning assumptions into facts, experiments are also key to effectively managing resources. They can help minimize the risk of investing too many resources into a product whose need or value has not been validated.

Experiments are simply a formal process for data collection. Why formal? Without the formality, experiments often produce less data, the wrong data, or even worse, no actionable data! When thinking about an experiment, startups must be able to clearly answer the following questions:

What we believe (our assumption).

What we will do to verify our assumption (our actions).

What we will measure (our metrics).

What our measurement results need to be if we are right (our expectations).

Nothing is perfect and innovation only comes from new experiments. With so much newness occurring every day, if L&D is not allowed to conduct some experiments of its own it will be forever behind the needs of its customers. Experiments, by definition, have an unknown outcome. Therefore, while L&D can’t know the outcome, it must know the parameters of the experiment and be able to work with the business to set the proper expectations. These expectations must be understood to get the most out of every experiment.

With a mutual understanding of the goals, structure, anticipated return and resources requirements, an experiment’s business sponsor can make a reasoned decision regarding participation in the experiment. Setting expectations is about knowing the risk and understanding that the potential reward is critical for experiments to be accepted in organizations unfamiliar with risk-taking.

For L&D, experiments can be used on any number of aspects of their organization. Content is the obvious one. I also believe that those organizations that adopt this approach in areas like process and people will see great return.

I recognize that a scientific approach can only take you so far. There are many factors that could influence the results of an experiment and there is not enough time or resources to prove everything. However, experimental results filtered through the experience and knowledge of the L&D organization can greatly increase the confidence level in any decision.

Speed to Learner

Today’s business world is moving faster than ever. A years ago, some of my former colleagues at The Forum Corporation released a book titled “Strategic Speed”. In the book, authors Boswell, Davis and Frechette highlight the need to focus on people in addition to process efficiency and systems. They went on to highlight what they see as the essential people factors for driving speed; clarity, unity and agility. Startups have adopted a similar strategy to driving increases in speed.

Startups always seek to increase speed to user. How can they get more people to experience the product? What channels and messaging are resulting in new user acquisition? In order to impact this dimension, I believe the mind-set of L&D needs to change from manufacturer to marketer. One look at attendance data will show you that the most attended trainings are frequently mandated, not sold, to their audience. Assuming that learning is solving a real problem, getting users to recognize and “buy” the solution quickly is critical. Running Training Like a Business 2.0 means L&D must become marketers and packagers of a truly performance-inducing product. Like Gatorade™ for employee performance.

When I first starting exploring the idea of Speed to Learner as an important dimension of organizational speed, I explained that L&D needed to shift from manufacturer to marketer. But what does this mean? L&D needs to speak, target users, and think, like a startup. While launching a new learning offering can be nerve racking, imagine the stress entailed with launching your new company. The stakes are high for startups. While building a great product is essential to a startup, your target market must still know about it…and use it.

If you sell anything with any success, you know that people don’t buy drills, which is a product feature, they buy holes, the product’s benefits. So why is the communication and language around learning so feature based. The industry speaks of “sales training” not “close more deals, make more commissions training”. Course objectives are often written, “at the end of this course you will be able to…” when the important part is found by adding “so that…” to the end. L&D should lead with benefits. L&D should know what the benefits are for learners and clearly state them in terms that the learner can recognize. For a startup or L&D, this is where all valuable products begin, with a true need.

Consumer advertising gets a bad name because many assume that sizzle replaces the need for a high quality steak. Many startups feel the same way. You haven’t heard about those startups because they very often fail. Winning solely on the basis of a superior product may feel like the high ground but what is missed is that in an age when we are all bombarded with messages every day, cutting through that noise with the benefits of your solution is also needed.

After adopting a marketer mindset the next step to improving speed to learner is for L&D to understand the road to audience adoption. Startups understand that they can’t get everyone right away. Instead they focus on a part of their addressable market called the early adopters. In his 1991 book “Crossing Chasm”, Geoffrey Moore described an approach of looking at the way new technologies are adopted by a market that is still used today.

In the book, he divided the market, represented by a bell curve, into five parts. From the thin left edge, he began with innovators. Moving right he identified the market parts as; early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Each part has its own requirements for the adoption of new technology. Innovators value new over perfect, while the early majority requires proof points, value being delivered in situations that look like theirs, in order to embrace the new technology. “Technology” is from the Greek “tekhnologia” which means the systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique. Sounds like a learning offering, doesn’t it?

Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm

When L&D rolls out a new initiative there is often too little thought given to how it should be rolled out. What parts of the desired audience like new but untested and potentially imperfect solutions? Which parts will require proof points or endorsements? A blanket approach rarely works with anything other than compliance training where attendance can be mandated. Understanding more about your audience’s requirements for adoption can make for a much more rapid and successful roll out.