One of the intentions of my course on social marketing is getting students comfortable with the idea of creating experiences where we can learn, fail, and learn some more. The principle of learning from failure is designed not to overcome the fear of failure that many people believe is the source of all evil when it comes to innovations in organizations - and social marketing programs, but rather the fear of criticism. More great ideas are buried by fear of devil's advocates and potential blamers than by any other source. Failure is the easy part; it's dealing with all of the criticism (justified or not - see devil's advocate) that goes before it, during it, and long afterwards that sucks the energy, creativity and enthusiasm out of people, programs and ultimately your organization.
I was thinking about this problem again during a strategic planning workshop I participated in last week. How do you encourage, support and reward innovation in an organizational culture that, regardless of the rhetoric, is mired in risk aversion and the fear of criticism? I did not have any 'aha' moments during the meeting, but reading Building a Values-Driven Organization on the plane led me to this section:
One technique we have developed to support the storyline of the 'compelling reasons for change' in an organization is to calculate the 'cost of fear' in an organization... For example, internal competition is rooted in fears concerning self-esteem. We compete rather than collaborate because we are more focused on self-interest than the common good... Empire building and information hoarding are motivated by similar needs. Hierarchy is rooted in fears concerning status and trust. Bureaucracy is rooted in fears concerning order and control...
The underlying fears in bureaucracy are 'things will fall apart if order is not maintained' and 'people will cheat the system if there are no controls'...The energy involved in 'doing' internal competition, bureaucracy, hierarchy, empire building, image, blame and information hoarding is not available for useful work. The effort and time that go into supporting these potentially limiting values result in a loss of productivity, efficiency, commitment, and opportunities.
Those are the costs of fear ... and I am not going to teach them. Why live them? And how do we change them?
Organizations don't change. People do!
[with a nod to Richard Barrett]