One key to success: Destigmatizing failure

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In training sessions, I’ve often asked people to think back to a time they were sitting in a grade school classroom and had a question in their minds they feared they should know the answer to already.

It may have been something that was just covered that you didn’t grasp. Alternatively, it might be something that it seems everyone but you already knows.

Then someone gets the courage to ask the “dumb question” you had and half the room leans forward to write down the answer.

While the exercise often elicits some laughter, the truth is that most of us have carried this trait with us into adulthood. Whether in training sessions or staff meetings, many of us are still hesitant to ask a “dumb question.” Those questions too often go unasked and workers hope they can figure out the answer later or that they never need the information.

That scenario doesn’t always end well.

And yet, in competitive cultures, there is often a stigma around feeling or looking ignorant. As entertainer and columnist Will Rogers said, “everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”

In a former career, I asked the district managers who reported to me to work with their branch managers to put together a “dumb questions manual.” We asked managers to anonymously submit silly questions that they would not feel comfortable asking in front of their peers. We also asked them to share some of the oddest, most confusing and/or funny questions customers have asked or requests they have made in a branch.

The manual was a “living document” and we reviewed and added submissions to it at regional meetings. Many of the questions and stories generated big laughs, which was, in itself, useful.

The more constructive aspect, however, was how many times a silly or funny question or story led experienced managers and district managers to say “hmmm…that’s a good one,” and having to research and/or discuss the answers with their peers.

A “dumb questions manual” helped to create a more comfortable environment for our folks to seek answers. It filled in information gaps we otherwise wouldn’t know existed.

When we destigmatize admitting that we do not understand something, we greatly improve our ability to effectively communicate with and develop our teams.

I thought back to that old manual recently when two friends, overseeing their bank’s high-profile entrance into a new market, shared how their bank was striving to destigmatize failure within their organization.

The project involved a new branch design, tweaked staffing models, innovative marketing and other modifications to the status quo. Large amounts of resources were invested beforehand in getting everything right. Many of the company’s best and brightest folks were involved in making that project a success.

By most measures, the project was a success. But they shared the details of an interesting session they were asked to lead, the bank’s first “failure forum,” spotlighting the project. The live forum was webcast and recorded for future distribution as well.

While these executives did discuss things that went well and what they learned from the project overall, they were also asked to talk openly about what didn’t go according to plan and why they believe those things happened. In addition, they shared what they’d do differently in the future and which areas of the bank could likely learn valuable lessons from their experiences.

Too often, organizations cut off any information before getting to this point.

The speed of evolution in the banking industry is as rapid as it has ever been. Institutions across the country are rolling out new strategies, exiting and entering markets, redesigning branches, expanding digital offerings and rethinking staffing roles and models.

Not everything attempted will go perfectly and according to plan. Those that hide mistakes from team members are far more likely to repeat them and struggle long term.

Organizations that reinforce that failures along the journey are part of their long-term success will create teams that are willing to honestly communicate with each other. They will also tend to make smarter, bolder moves to serve customers and grow their businesses.

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