Finally focus on failure

Ed Catmull (CEO of Pixar) explains how he cultivates trust in teams

It took three years after the credit crunch before the masters of leadership development, Harvard Business Review, to offer us a major exploration into the art of corporate failure (April 2011 issue of the journal).

Now the respected business journal has finally set aside a complete edition of its wondeful magazine to failure. Respect to them. But it was a slow response.

Ed Catmull on learning from failure

In 2010 the Economist interviewed the CEO and President of Pixar, Ed Catmull. He talks a lot about learning from failure, enable peers to develop each other and get things right sooner.

Read highligts or watch the interview

Scott Burkin provides a splendid summary of the conversation.

Finally focus on failure

Train consultancy skills

Harajuku Cowboys

Sharing knowledge and training internal consultancy skills

Below is a half-day workshop design I prepared for a management training a couple of years ago. I believe it still works. I found it useful when there was a need for both training people in acting as internal consultants as well as providing problem owners, those sharing a business challenge, with some useful input.

Workshop purpose

  1. Enable people to get help dealing with a specific business challenge they are currently facing
  2. Increase participants’ insight across units
  3. Build corporate pride

Participants’ profile

Participants can be experts, managers or regular employees. For instance, if you design a training for managers, politics will become an aspect more important to manage. If running the workshop for regular employees, make sure to have dead specific tasks written down on handouts.

Time needed

Three hours for a group of 20-40 persons. It’s flexible, of course. However, squeezing it below two hours will make participants frustrated due to time constraint. In addition, there’ll be a danger of ruining the group dynamics.

Workshop design

1. Articulate a problem statement [two weeks prior to the workshop]

Invite a selection of the participants (for instance half of the group) to articulate a specific business problem they are currently facing in their daily work. The statement should be brief, ideally a one sentence ‘elevator pitch’ understandable to everyone (avoid internal jargon).

Some ideas for topics:

  • how to manage communication related to an upcoming downsizing process
  • identify new revenue streams within division’s strategy
  • cut costs in a way that makes sense to employees
  • how to become more efficient in day to day business within xx unit

What is important is that those you invite to articulate a ‘problem statement’ should be motivated for sharing their challenge. Thus, consider who you ask. Depending what your additional objectives for the training are (build team spirit, make some junior managers visible, enable women managers to take the stage, etc), you can make a selection that makes sense in the group as a whole.

2. Organise participants into problem owners vs consultants [in the workshop]

Sort participants into smaller teams of, say, three problem owners and three consultants. Allow each problem owner to present their challenge to the group in 5 min.

When all three problem owners have presented, ask the three consultants to reflect upon the three pitches. Which one do they want to go for. They can only choose one problem.

The two ‘left over’ problem owners joins the group.

The group (of roughly six persons) spends the next 60-90 minutes discussing the problem decided upon.

3. Problem cracking, caramba!

Each group works on the problem chosen in 60-90 minutes, depending on the complexity of it.
Make sure to dedicate one person per group who is charge of documenting the work (flip charts or similar tools). Unless something is decided during the group work, this person will at least have to present a synopsis of what took place in the group when all partcipants come together in plenary by the end of the workshop.

4. Plenary sharing

When groups return to plenary after having worked on their group task, it is time for sharing some reflections, both on the challenges decided upon, as well as the consultants’ input.

Please note that the result, advice or specific outcome of the session is not necessarily the most valuable aspect of the group work. Do make sure to challenge the groups on other things, such as work process. For instance how did they cooperate, listen, decide, discuss and prioritise?

An ethical note in the end: Make sure to remind participants in the end that information shared may be sensitive. Thus, show respect and be cautious about sharing if so is necessary.


Advice for the facilitator: Make a role description for ‘internal consultants’

It’s vital that consultants understand their role when they enter into position of internal consultant. Please provide internal consultants with an A4 sheet describing their role, beneficial attitudes, as well as what to avoid. For instance:

  • The internal consultants are supposed to help the problem owner to open up the problem, not solve it. In the end it is the problem owner who will need to do the hard work.
  • Challenge the problem owner to frame (and reframe) the problem in simple terms
  • Take the problem owner’s point of view: what would you do in his or her position?
  • Avoid rushing for conclusions. There’s no speed competition to complete first.
  • Be aware that feedback can be interpreted differently from person to person. Frame your input in a specific and constructive manner. Be respectful.
Train consultancy skills

New experience: downsizing

It is hard to leave a company you adore. Luckily, change creates space for development.

Getting it right is not always easy
Getting it right is not always easy

A week ago myself and 24 of my colleagues at the head quarter of Schibsted received the message from our leaders:

Sorry, we’ll have to cut 1 out of 4 full time employees at the Schibsted Media Group’s head office. You’re one of our people who we are offering a severance package.

Of course, getting that message is pretty rough. I entered into my job with head and toes and have tried to faciliate good arenas for executive and corporate learning. However, when company incomes shrink and economic prospects are gloomy, it is comprehensible that our executives will need to make some tough decisions. They’ve already downsized in other parts of our media group (Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, etc), so it’s about time the head office started counting its heads and making some cuts.

Involve your employees, even though it’s brutal

There is at least one really valuable lesson to be learnt from the downsizing process I have just been a part of: involve your employees also when times are rough.

More than a month ago my boss asked me and my colleagues who are in charge of leadership development activities across the media group to suggest ways to cut costs in our activities. We were asked to present a few alternative scenarios. The bigger the cuts, the better. So we did. Suddenly I realised the value of involvement. The process of actually going into depth of what the consequences would be if we cut a lot vs a little of our costs made a lot of sense to me.

It is actually possible to make people identify themselves with rough consequences if they themselves are invited to suggest and design them. Our boss listened to us and took parts of our scenarios into account when she moved forward with the process of downsizing.

How come this feels okay in the end, even though I will leave my job due to the process? I think this process confirms the basic human need of being listened to and to be confirmed. We were listened to and thus we were much more open to buy the message from our executives that our functions will need to take a break right now due to the financial situation the media industry is going through.

Change triggers opportunities

Sudden changes also makes one’s mind go hunt for opportunities. I will stay in my position for a few most likely until over the summer in order to complete my activities. I will start looking for opportunities. At the same time this moment is also a perfect timing for rediscovering my ideas and passions in my professional life. What are they? Are they the same as what I am currently doing? Are they something different?

I think a lot of people, not only those of us who are being downsized, may find it thrilling and encouraging to go hunt for ones real professional self.

New experience: downsizing

The art of providing feedback

Ingrid Røynesdal


Back your compliments with specific examples and a reason. Never just say ‘nice’ or ‘well done’. It won’t do.

Thursday 12th of June 2008 I attended one of those half-day sessions aiming to inspire you, the Johan Trone conference, an annual happening at the Norwegian School of Management. For once I walked out of the conference room truly inspired, much thanks to Ingrid Røynesdal, a piano player and former athlete.

Cut the crap. Be honest and specific.

Røynesdal had been asked to tell roughly 150 decision makers from public and private sector on how to make particularly talented people pour their energy and drive into your company’s daily matters. She talked about feedback. She is rooted in classical music, tennis and social science. The two first elements of her identity, she explained to the crowd, had turned her into becoming someone highly addictive to thorough feedback. She was utterly frustrated about how incredibly much hopeless feedback that people present to each other.

She suggested three key steps forward in order to improve:

1. Provide compliments with a reason

Everyone searches for confirmation on their specific delivery. All of us want to know (again and again) that other people really think that we are talented. Therefore, when someone has done you a favour, handed in a piece of work you asked for, don’t just say ‘thanks, that’s wonderful’. Continue! Explain what you find wonderful. Explain what you appreciate about the work. Then the other person will turn back to work and continue developing just those things you spelled out that you appreciated. What exactly did you like? Why did you like it? Why did it meet your standards? Why is this so important? Røynesdal underlined the need for you to convince the one who has delivered that you are actually serious about your compliment, that it’s not just a standard phrase you throw in this person’s face.

2. Spell out your critical comments

The next step is to move on to the more critical aspects of a the delivery. This equals you paying respect to the other. Everyone knows that a final delivery will have room for improvement. Anyone can pick on details. Therefore, don’t pretend you don’t see those details. Share your critical point of views. The more specific you get, the better. It will make the other person trust you even more. Being critical towards another person, when trust has been created, is the most valuable action you can demonstrate. It’s and action of trust.

Never be vague in your criticism. Also avoid phrasing yourself in indirect terms, beating around the bush. Worst of all is silence.

3. Provide challenges and people will prosper

Challenges may make people tick. People want to learn, develop, create and become part of something bigger. Enable people to craft something on their own and they’ll come back to you time after time, asking for new tasks. That counts particularly for talented people, according to Røynesdal. However, I believe this works well for anyone going to work not only to get the pay check.

Reading suggestions

Check out coach and Harvard Business Online blogger Marshall Goldsmith’s suggestions on how to get feedback right.

The art of providing feedback

Transforming your 360-degree feedback into action

Turn your 360-degree feedback results into applied value for your staff by asking them for advice on how to improve your leadership style.

Marshall Goldsmith

If you are a leader who has recently received feedback from your surroundings at work, and then discussed the findings with your coach, you might be wondering how to move on. You can transform recently gained insight into how your surroundings interpret your leadership by involving your employees.

Enable employees to develop you

Do a follow-up with your employees after the completion of the 360-degree feedbac process has ended. Ask them to suggest ways of improving. This will provide you with an opportunity to share how you have experienced the process, as well as air your thoughts on what you have learnt about yourself as a leader during the process. By creating an arena for dialogue, you may figure out that your surroundings will welcome your invitation to develop you.

Marshall Goldsmith, coach and contributor to Harvard Business Online, suggests the a blueprint of five guidelines so that they will enjoy helping you improving your leadership skills. Goldsmith’s advice is to do this in order to create goodwill and trust among your employees:

  1. Thank your employees for providing you with feedback
  2. Review your strengths: express how you appreciate them being honest with you
  3. Openly discuss desired areas of improvement
  4. Solicit ideas for the future
  5. Make realistic commitments (do not miss out on this one!)
  6. Ask for their continued support

Read the whole story as presented by Marshall Goldsmith.

Transforming your 360-degree feedback into action