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By The Numbers

Workplace Survey, Findings

1.Workers are struggling to work effectively. 

When focus is compromised in pursuit of Collaboration, neither works well.

2. Effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration. 

Workplaces designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employees’ ability to focus are more successful.

3. Choice drives performance and innovation. 

Employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees.


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Failure is inevitable, so the key to success is to be good at learning from it. The ability to capitalize on hard-won experience is a hallmark of the greatest organizations, the ones that are most adept at turning knowledge into action

Failure sucks but instructs. In fact, there is no learning without failure — and this includes failing at dangerous things like surgery and flying planes. Discovery of the moves that work well is always accompanied by discovery of moves that don't.


This is why failure is so endemic to innovation. We've all seen reports of the huge percentages of new products, companies, and ideas that fail. Professor Dean Keith Simonton has conducted extensive quantitative research on creative geniuses. Looking for the differences between geniuses and their more ordinary counterparts, he found that "Creativity is a consequence of sheer productivity. If a creator wants to increase the production of hits, he or she must do by risking a parallel increase in the production of misses. ... The most successful creators tend to be those with the most failures!"



While informing your people that "failure is not an option" — in the famous phrase of Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz — might be useful on occasion for inspiring exceptional effort and resourcefulness, it sends a dangerously wrong signal. True, no one should choose the option of failure deliberately, but trying especially hard to avoid it means taking no chances on change. The better message to get across is that failure is a by-product of risk-taking, and honest mistakes will be forgiven.


That may sound like obvious good sense, but consider how rare it is in large organizations rife with personal ambitions, politics, and scapegoating. If people perceive that the best way to look good is to make others look bad, then mistakes are seized upon, the venturesome are humiliated, and a climate of fear takes hold. People engage in CYA behaviour, and the game becomes avoiding the finger of blame rather than surfacing, understanding, and learning from failures.


The value of transforming an organizational culture from one that promotes fear to one that offers a psychological sense of safety is illustrated by a now classic study conducted by Harvard's Amy Edmondson. As her research shows, people in organizations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.


In one study, Edmondson looked at drug treatment errors in hospital nursing units. To her amazement, the best nursing unit, where the boss encouraged nurses to talk openly about mistakes — and never pointed an angry finger of blame — reported about ten times more errors than the worst, fear-ridden unit. The key word in that sentence is "reported." When nurses owned up to mistakes in the nasty unit, the leader treated them as "guilty" and "like a two-year old." The tenfold difference in reported errors was due to psychological safety, not the actual error rate.


So a willingness to forgive — even of behaviours that can feel threatening — is essential on the part of any boss who wants to set group norms that will lead to psychological safety and constant learning. But, that shouldn't extend to a resolution to "forgive and forget. In most settings, forgiving and forgetting, while temporarily comforting, condemns people and systems to make the same mistake again — sometimes over and over. The better approach is to Forgive and Remember, which is the title of a great book by Charles Bosk on medical errors, and the philosophy he says the best teams and organizations use.


You forgive because it is impossible to run an organization without making mistakes, and pointing fingers and holding grudges creates a climate of fear. You remember — and talk about the mistakes openly — so people and the system can learn. And you also remember so that you'll notice if some people keep making the same mistakes, even after being taught how to avoid them. In that case, well, they need to be moved to another kind of job.


A vital difference between good and bad bosses is that the former consider it their responsibility to surface and learn from past setbacks, errors, and failure. They apply their management skills and dedication to building trust and an atmosphere of psychological safety. These are the kinds of bosses we need more of if we want fewer preventable deaths in hospitals, fewer plane crashes, fewer oil spills. Not bosses that demand no mistakes, but bosses who help their organizations stop making the same ones.