A half hour early for the appointment, I found a courtyard to wait in.
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business is a perplexing facility. I couldn’t find a direct route from one side of the business school complex to the other. Getting lost, however, reveals a variety of wonderful places to sit and get work done.
Plus, they offer public wi-fi, with a strong signal from a very nice patio in a courtyard outside a long hallway connecting two wings of the center.
A cool morning, I shared the courtyard with only one other: a soldier. He busied himself with the set up of an exercise. I’ve facilitated quite a few teaching exercises. I had no trouble spotting the “before the exercise” routine of “creating the container.” Beyond that, I paid little attention to the exercise itself. I was working my way through a back log of emails while waiting for my appointment time.
I came to campus to meet a professor in the business school who was an expert in learning, experimentation, and failure in a businesses. I wanted to pick his brain about how to help lead “the frozen middle” toward a learning stance. By that, I mean, I wanted to know how to promote creative failures and discourage avoidable failures.
Failures are necessary for learning.
Typically, however, when we fail, we perform the following routine:  “Oh crap! Can I fix it before anyone notices?  “Double crap! I can’t! I need to minimize the damage before it’s noticed,” and  “Oh crapity crap crap crap! It’s out. It’s bad. Who can I blame?”
No one learns in this kind of failing.
And, it costs a lot of money.
If you’ve ever been on an Ops rotation, you’ve been in a War Room during a post-go-live incident. Everyone is urgently working to identify the short-term-fix to restore business operations, including the engineer who created the issue. This engineer knows he or she created the issue. If she or he had raises his or her hand and say, “Yeah, I think I did that,” we’d have had services restored in a fraction of the time.
When the engineer doesn’t, we have to circle back on it in root-cause-failure. Once identified, the engineer mounts a robust defense to prove it wasn’t his or her fault, after all: “There were mitigating circumstances; the engineer to the left actually did it; there were sun-spots; Space Aliens, as God is my witness, it was the Space Aliens.”
We need the kind learning that comes from failed experimentation. When these experiments fail, we need to call it out and understand why it failed. We need to know whether to just repeat the experiment (“we think it’s only going to work one out of five times. What if that was ‘one’?”), adjust the experiment (bad design means we couldn’t detect a success if we had one.”) or adjust our hypothesis (“well, guys, it looks like we were wrong.”).
And, then, try again.
We’re not allowed to experiment and fail, however. Everything we do needs to be a success, so that we can prove that we’re not wasting any money.
In this environment, all of our experiments are successful, because we lie about the results in PowerPoint presentations.
So, the question is: how do we adjust the thinking in a company to promote experimentation and reward creative failures?
The question is important enough for me to take half a morning out of the office to seek out a professor who knows quite a bit more about this topic than I do.
About the time I emailed in my Stand Up into the team, a group of graduate students burst into the courtyard. They wore athletic attire, and each person had one green item. Some had green headbands. Others had green grease paint under their eyes.
This was, I presume, The Green Team.
They assembled around the soldier, who explained to them the challenges they would have to overcome as a team. There would be several. The soldiers would award the team a certain number of points for each challenge met.
I closed my laptop. Serendipity is where you find it.
The Green Team solved every challenge put before them. They scored all of the points they were eligible to collect. They celebrated as a team their team success with a great deal of elan. The Green Team had esprit de corps.
Hats off to them. They earned their successes and they had good reason to celebrate. I presume each of them earned their admission into a prestigious and challenging curriculum. Their performance in the courtyard was evidence of all of this.
And, if any of them end up on a team I’m coaching, I’ll spend years undoing their education.
While they were completing the exercises, this is what I noted:
- I presume these are challenges that Army Officers in training perform to in order to build unit cohesion. Are the qualities that make military leaders strong team members the same qualities that make business leaders good team members? Green Team spent no time asking this question: it was a timed challenge, and when the clock started, they bolted through the gate.
- At the outset of the each challenge, they plan. They take no action, no experimentation, no testing, no trying. Instead, they spend about 90% of the exercise time talking about what they are going to do. (I timed it).
- There’s no method to this planning. They storm over each other. There are no agreements about how we talk to each other — no Liberating Structures, no rules of dialog, no time boxes. To my eye, the men spoke more than the women, and the dominant men spoke the most.
- Once they’d agreed to a plan — there’s no agreement about agreeing: roman voting,
fist of five, etc — no agreement about consensus, plurality, majority, or unanimity — they execute. Once they start, no matter how well it’s working, they stick to the plan until they succeed.
- Once they succeed, they celebrate. They don’t review, reflect, iterate or improve on the exercise.
- Not one of them thought to walk up to the instructor and say, “You’ve probably done this a thousand times. What’s the best way to complete the exercise?” I’m sure the instructor would have refused to tell them, because this simple, common sense question is “cheating.”
- There were no other teams present, so they couldn’t go up to the Red or the Blue team and say, “Here’s what we just learned about this exercise.” If Red and Blue teams had been present, the Green Team would have, no doubt, done everything in their power to deliberate in secret and hide their execution from these other teams.
It’s hard to undo this kind of exercise or expose the assumptions that shape it.
When we create a game, we construct a simulation of the world. We pull into this simulated container just the few elements of the world that are most important — the elements essential to inform learning. In this container, we can practice skills. When we leave the container, we recognize the real world in the elements of the simulation. So, we can carry what we learned from the lesson into the work place.
Consider the elements in this simulation:
- We’re working against the clock. There’s no time.
- We get partial points awarded for incomplete challenges.
- We’re in a competition. We have to win.
- When you’re done, you’re done.
- Completing the exercise is the same as working as a team.
As the students are celebrating their success, I’m wondering how much effort will be involved to “un-learn” all of this.
I point this out to the professor when we meet, and he seems genuinely amused — he’s neither threatened nor offended. He listens and smiles, and I think he sees what I see.
It was my only real contribution to our discussion. In the course of an hour, I learned more than I could take in. I’m still processing what he had to teach me about organizations and learning by failure. That’s another essay for another time.
Back at the office, I fell into a conversation with Richard Khor about creating an exercise that simulated failure and learning.
In this simulation, we build a container around these elements:
- Storming and planning won’t work.
- Collaboration, implementation, reflection, and improvement are necessary to succeed.
- The team will have to sort out how they are going to work with each other, since some of the activities will have to take place independently and out of site.
- Collaborating with other teams will accelerate success.
- The instructors act as “product owners,” so asking them the right questions gets you a better result faster.
We’re working out the details, but we’re looking forward to seeing if we can’t roll it out in the organization by summer.
The challenge laid out by the soldiers seemed to be something that teams could pick up on the fly.
This exercise will be devilishly difficult for most teams trying in it out for the first time. It’s not that it’s hard. It’s that we’ve never learned to learn by failing and iterating. The notion that the only way to succeed is to devise a way to fail quickly and iterate with the knowledge that failure offered us is a strange and foreign concept.
I can hardly wait to start the deconstruction and the “un-learning.”