Life is a Learning Curve

Sometimes you come across a book or two that are just right. That just explain to you what you think you have been thinking, but have not been able to arrange properly in your head so that you get it. These two books have done that for me in recent weeks.

Matthew Syed's in-depth analysis of how we think about, deal with and use so-called failure is a lesson in business management. He shows with research that those with open minds are so much more productive than those that create atmospheres of fear in their businesses or sectors. You will be more worried about going into hospital than flying on a plane, with the equivalent of two jumbo jet passenger lists dying every day in the US due to errors in hospitals. A mistake in a hospital is most likely to be explained away or unreported because mistakes are seen as incompetence, while in the aeronautical sector, mistakes are seen as opportunities to prevent future problems. He talks about research that shows the difference in Fixed Mindsets, where people are not open to innovation or creativity because it might not work, compared with Growth Mindsets, where ideas are welcomed, mistakes reported because there is no negative comeback and the talent that exists in the business or even country, thrives. Japan, where mistakes are shameful, has one of the lowest levels of innovation and investment in new businesses due to the attitude to failure. In the US failure is seen as an attempt to succeed and a start point for the next venture. The premise of the book that we are human and we make mistakes, but that those that are open to learning build better companies and get more out of people. Mistakes are what we do when we are children learning how to talk, or do simple things. Scientific development revolves around experimentation, with a low level of expectation. Dyson tried out over 4000 ways to develop his vacuum cleaner, most give up at less than 100. We need resilience, not perfection.

Charlene Li talks about Disruption and the need to let go of set values and systems if you are going to succeed in the 2020s. Look at the media and retail worlds and how they have been changed completely in ten years. The companies that have gone failed to see that change was happening and would be long term. The wistful hope that things would revert to as before was wishful thinking of the highest order. It is like the people who "don't like" that mobile phones are used all over the place (until they need to look at theirs) and think that somehow social media and the internet will vanish. Her book talks of how Adobe completely reconstructed their route to market by going subscription on the cloud from buying software discs. Two years of financial reconstruction followed by huge growth in the turnover, margin and therefore profit.

Both of the authors talk about mindset, and core to mindset is communication. How management engages with employees, how mistakes are seen as failure or opportunities to prevent future errors. In the Toyota factory in Japan, if a worker on the production line makes an error, he has a button to push that stops the line, so that the error can be rectified, AND they can work out how to stop it happening again.

Watching the Netflix documentary about Formula One shows this approach in action. One episode is about Haas, a team that had a terrible time in2019. They created a blame culture, the team principal was aggressive and old school, ranting and raving, pointing fingers, creating fear. The next episode is about Mercedes, led by Toto Wolff. They made a complete mess of the German Grand Prix, but he said: "We are a no blame team, we all take responsibility for the successes and failures - it is difficult sometimes - but that is what we do." Who has won the last six world titles? Not Haas.

The Growth Mindset needs open-minded nurturing, the Fixed Mindset relies on fear and secrecy. Open-minded does not mean a once a year state of the nation speech from the CEO, with a few so-called values thrown in. Charlene Li in another of her books Open Leadership talks of being told before a presentation that everyone would know the values and goals of the company because they had been told at another meeting. On asking the people in the room, no-one could recall all five. The leadership box had been ticked and put away for another year.

So ask yourself this. Do you create or work in an open-minded environment? Or are you nervous about speaking out, or pointing out possible improvements? Are do you have a Growth or Fixed mindset?

This is all about behaviour, and how to change it. Behavioural change revolves around communications. Marketing is all about changing the behaviour of existing and potential customers. Language can create positive or negative responses. Attitudes can encourage teamwork or close it down.

Serious businesses approach their futures by taking their communications and leadership seriously, not by making a state of the Union speech every year by a CEO that no one really knows. What would you prefer to spend your time doing, watching a video of a man talking about the business in a corporate-speak, or to read "Ten things you didn't know about the Boss!"

Do you know much about the people you work with, the company goals, the business plan etc.? Do you feel that your talents are being used to their full capacity? Are you involved in the strategy of the business? Have you more to contribute? Or if you are a director, are you closed to sharing? Do you create an innovative environment? Do you create real opportunities to hear the ideas of the people in your organisation?

Creating a Growth Factor for your business may come naturally, but it can be challenging. Being open means being open to help, to admit that others might be more able than you in certain areas. I am good at marketing and communications but am useless at languages. No-one ie expected to know everything. To quote Toto Wolff again, "I don't know how to design the aerodynamics of the car, but I have someone who does." So if you believe that communications are central to leadership, growth, sales and success, give me a call. I'll be there.

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2020 Tim McKane - on WIx. Belfast Northern Ireland