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How to Get Your Team to Take More Risks

People generally hate failing but creativity requires it, so how can you persuade your team to tolerate risk? Try a 'failure metric.'
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By now it’s a truism that if you want more creativity from your team you have to make sure they’re comfortable taking risks and failing. But, of course, most people naturally hate failing. So how can you actually put this oft repeated bit of business advice into practice?

Standing on a chair in the center of the room and announcing to everybody, 'OK guys, time to fail more!' is unlikely to get you results (though it may get you some interesting looks). But if you want to transform your commitment to creativity from empty words into actual action, Jason Seiken, senior vice president and general manager of digital at PBS, recently offered a suggestion on the HBR Blog Network. His idea: a failure metric.

The in depth post is well worth a read in full if this is an issue you’ve been wrestling with (or if you’re interested in the challenges of legacy media brands struggling to stay relevant in a rapidly changing landscape), but the essence of Seiken’s story boils down to this:

When I joined the company in December 2006, I decided to deliver a shock to the system. Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric.

Failure.

With a twist: "If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” I told every staffer, “you’ll be downgraded."

Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.

The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things… In a beautifully ironic twist, the failure metric itself initially failed. We originally envisioned the metric as a formal KPI in each staffer’s annual performance review. But we soon realized we had created a contradiction: You can’t build a culture that values rapid iteration by simply changing an annual performance cycle. We needed daily reinforcement of the desirability of risk-taking and failing fast.

So instead of spending cycles working with HR to create a KPI measuring lack of failure, we focused on endlessly repeating the "must fail" message.

The change was rapid and profound.

Just how profound?

"In the five years since we delivered the failure metric jolt to our system, unique visitors to PBS.org have doubled. In each of the first seven months of 2013, PBS.org topped ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox as the most-visited network TV site, according to comScore. In that same timeframe, video views on PBS.org and our mobile platforms have risen 11,200 percent," reports Seiken.

But of course this swing towards embracing culture wasn’t without its bumps in the road. The post details staff departures, push back from the larger organization and the messy details of implementation (one product manager’s whose newly launch site failed got "a spot bonus and her 'smart failure'" which "was listed as a top accomplishment in her glowing annual review"). Check it out if you’re interested in adding a failure metric at your business.  

What are you doing to make your team more open to risk and failure?

 

IMAGE: Gallery Stock
Last updated: Sep 16, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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