In 1790, George Washington famously proclaimed, “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” The recent celebration of our country’s 241st birthday is the perfect time to spotlight a fundamental truth about human beings and the institutions that manage our collective lives: The basic principles and practices that underlie the “great experiment” known as the United States of America apply just as powerfully to a company as they do to a nation.
Nothing captures the essence of that truth more elegantly and meaningfully than the last six words of our country’s Pledge of Allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.”
Liberty and justice in the workplace
For all the yearning that companies profess for “out-of-the-box thinking” and “taking initiative,” the way they typically operate robs employees of personal freedom and forces them into drone-like conformity with the status quo. In most organizations, following rules and regulations gets rewarded far more often and more richly than calculated risk-taking. That’s especially true when risky actions lead to conspicuous failures – which are inevitable by definition. Where’s the justice in that? What kind of incentive does that give people to go the extra mile, to dig into the messy trial-and-error process of discovery and innovation?
If you truly want to generate the creative thinking and behavior that’s essential to excel and produce significant breakthroughs, employees need the “liberty” to use their imagination, to try new things – and the “justice” to be rewarded for the effort and the courage it takes to risk failing.
Getting an organization to operate that way as a routine part of its culture can take a long time, but here are a couple of actions you can take to start moving in the right direction.
Establish a “habit for improvement”
All habits – good, bad or indifferent – have one thing in common. They will never change unless they get replaced by another habit. If you want people to move beyond the habit of doing things the same way over and over again, you need to substitute it with a “habit for improvement.”
People need to gather on a regular basis – at least once a week – for the prime purpose of exploring ways to do things better. It’s not a one-off, when-you-get-the-urge activity, and it’s not optional. Everyone participates as a team, as a supportive community, everyone votes, every idea gets just consideration, and “rewards” come in two forms – neither of which are about money or career advancement:
- Showing people that their opinions count by supporting them in implementing improvements as quickly as possible without a lot of bureaucratic hassle;
- Mutual on-the-spot acknowledgment and appreciation for one another – no plaques, no trophies, no employee of the month awards, no bonuses, no perks – just high-fives and cheers for peers all around in the moment.
Hold a “fail fest”
It’s one thing to tell people it’s okay to fail; it’s even more powerful if you celebrate it. That’s right – toast your biggest failures on a regular basis with the same passion you would show for your greatest accomplishments. Truth is, unless you’re really lucky, most big breakthroughs are the result of what you learn from your failures – sometimes lots of them. The key is to “fail fast” and “fail forward.”
One way to build that practice into a routine is with a regular “fail fest.” Once a quarter, bring teams together to examine your most notable failures of the past 90 days. What were some big risks that offered potentially big rewards that you learned from and pointed you in a different direction toward new and improved solutions?
Then have everyone vote on the “best failure,” and pop a cork to celebrate. Better yet, shoot off some fireworks as a tribute to the company’s commitment to liberty and justice for all.
Looking for a process for how to create a “habit for improvement?” Download the brochure for the Landes & Associates Continuous Improvement System.
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