October 25, 2023
Screenshot of part of a data collection sheet created by Andrew Volkert for use in “implementing many small, frequent tests.”
On organizational culture and intelligent failure
Hello, I hope you are doing well. This Coaching Letter is about two things: culture and failure. I started writing this on my way home from a weekend in the DC area; I went to co-teach a class with my friend and colleague David Eddy-Spicer, which was very fun, not least because the students were interesting people and asked good questions and said interesting things (I’m sure I will be using the plaid analogy—more on that another time), but also because they clearly like and respect David, who is indeed a wonderful person, which was lovely to see.
My assignment was to teach organizational culture. So let’s start with that. The class had to read chapters from Bolman & Deal, which I don’t love, for several reasons. First, it’s an overwhelmingly male text. The organizations presented as exemplars tend to be tech start-ups and Navy SEALs and big companies like Zappos, none of which bear much resemblance to a typical elementary school. And their idea of a desirable culture seems to lean heavily towards commitment to the organization, which glorifies devotion, which doesn’t leave much room for those of us who live complicated lives with multiple responsibilities. And it’s also very white; their idea of diversity seems to be around men who don’t always agree with each other, which is laughable on a couple of different levels. And to top it all, I don’t think they actually provide an operational definition of culture. All of which is to say, I think it’s a useful book and aspiring leaders should read it, just don’t take everything they say about culture as gospel, and remember that they are a couple of white guys pandering to a business audience.
So, I do have an operational definition of organizational culture: Culture is the label we give to the beliefs that members of an organization hold about what success looks like within the organization.
I like this definition for four reasons: first, it cuts through a lot of other vague stuff that gets in the way; second, it is a neat way to get at the fact that “the way things are done around here” are done for a reason, and so it invites us to ferret out what the reasons are; third, it communicates that culture is what the people living in it think it is, rather than what the leaders say it is; and fourth, it communicates that culture is not a thing—we tend to personify culture, and speak of it as though it has agency (as in, “the culture won’t support that” or “it’s a really toxic culture” or even “the culture thinks…”) which then shifts culture from being something you have no control over to something you do. You definitely have control over people’s perceptions of what the organization values. Just to clarify: if you think culture is a thing that has its own seat at the table, but it’s invisible and doesn’t own a cell phone, there’s no way to talk to it, persuade it, or change it. But if you frame culture as beliefs about success, then those beliefs can be changed, by changing what people believe about what is valued. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, just that it is feasible. But it requires some investigation into what people believe about what the organization values, and why they believe it.
One of the activities I ran with David’s class was to give them my definition and then ask them to choose an organization and describe its culture in terms of what the people in the organization believe that success looks like. But that turned out to be not such a great assignment, because I didn’t make it clear that I meant what people believed success looked like for them, as opposed to how the organization would be judged as successful. So, on the one hand, because I asked the groups to make their thinking visible, I could easily go from group to group and clarify and prod a bit before they got too far—so that’s a plus. But a task that I thought was relatively simple and straightforward turned out not to be anything of the sort—so that’s a fail.
OK, so quick detour to talk about failure. I’ve written about failure before, heavily influenced by the work of Amy Edmondson, who is one of my intellectual heroes. If you have not already read Teaming (about the features of, and factors that produce, effective teams) or The Fearless Organization (about psychological safety), I highly recommend them. And speaking of psychological safety, you really should subscribe to the Psychological Safety Newsletter, which is one of the few newsletters that may actually be better than this one. Professor Edmondson’s new book, Right Kind of Wrong, is all about learning from failure, which is a theme that features heavily in the first two books and many of her other articles.
In the new book, Professor Edmondson makes lots of useful distinctions, including among basic, complex, and intelligent failure. This latter is, of course, the most useful, and she talks about the conditions that make a failure an intelligent failure:
- Takes place in new territory, meaning that there isn’t also a known answer to the question. Which only makes sense; it would be pointless to repeat someone else’s failures in the name of learning.
- Opportunity-driven, meaning that there is some goal, something worth learning.
- Informed by prior knowledge: have I done everything I can to get ready for the experiment. Am I prepared to learn from it? For example, do I know what success looks like, do I know what data I’m going to collect and how I’m going to collect it and what I’m going to do with it.
- As small as possible: what is the smallest experiment you can conduct and still learn from it?
This work on failure intersects with several projects I work on. For example:
- In the Acceleration NIC, but in lots of other work as well, we are always encouraging people to run many small, frequent tests (see the screenshot at the top of this CL) in the hope that they will fail; the tests should be small enough that the failure won’t do any harm, and frequent enough that there is lots of learning. If you try something new and it works perfectly, it means you could have been doing it all along! No learning required! But true innovation requires learning, and learning requires failure, so let’s fail in intelligent ways.
- In work on strategy and HQI and evaluation, I talk about Ed Schein’s work on culture and leadership—he talks about their being two sides of the same coin—and how leaders deal with failure is one of the key ways in which the culture of an organization is created, sustained, and destroyed. Leaders who say things like “Don’t bring me problems, only solutions” (which was a favorite of a superintendent I used to work for) is a very damaging leadership move. It means that people won’t bring you bad news, avoid taking risks, and aim for goals that they already know they can meet—see this article in the Harvard Business Review. By employing that phrase, or even by implication, a leader creates a certain culture.
My experience in education is that we tend to reject new ideas at the first sign of failure, rather than construing them as learning opportunities. We will ask questions like “how did it go?” and be satisfied with the answer “I couldn’t make it work” or “I didn’t like it.” We are not good at following up. We should say “Great! How do you know? What did you learn?” bearing mind that how someone felt about how it went is not a good metric. Mike Rother’s advice in Toyota Kata is worth repeating here:
Very few things work the first time, or even the second time. I used to struggle with this question. We would go to the factory floor to try something and several people would fold their arms and say, “Well, let’s see if this works.” Of course within a short time the test failed. They were right, I was wrong, and the experiment would be over. At the first signs of problems, difficulties, or a failed step, it was announced that, “Well, that doesn’t work,” and often, “Let’s go back to the way we did it before because we know that works.” Eventually it dawned on me how to deal with this question. Now, when arms fold up and people say, “Let’s see if this will work,” I say, “I can save you the time. We already know it probably won’t work. Despite our best efforts to plan this, we know that within a short time there will be ‘charred and glowing’ pieces lying around. We just don’t know in advance when, where, or why it will fail.” At this point the arms usually start unfolding a bit, and I follow with, “What we should be asking ourselves is not will it work, but, let’s see what we need to do to make this work.”
On the train home, I was writing about the class in my notebook and how the “what does success look like in a specified organization” activity didn’t go as expected (an intelligent failure!), and I realized that I could have scaffolded the activity by giving my own organization as a worked example. Or, when I realized that I had been unclear in giving the assignment, I could have pulled everyone together and used PEL as an example. So, this is an advertisement for writing about your failures—I always have more insight about what I’ve learned and what I could have done differently and better when I write about what happened. I think that writing imposes a discipline on your thought processes that is hard to adhere to if you’re just inside your own head (and coaching works the same magic). And, here is what I would have said, so that you have a worked example if you decide to do this for your own organization or run a similar activity.
Here’s what success does and does not look like in my organization and why I think so:
- It is, in general, a Theory Y kind of place. We all believe that everyone is doing, and will do, the best we can. We don’t hold people accountable for things that are beyond their control, even when the consequences are huge—I lost a huge contract this year and the response from my boss was thoughtful and supportive—absolutely nothing to indicate that I should feel anything other than pride in the work we did do with that district until the contract was canceled.
- Learning is important. I know that because my boss explicitly values our sharing our learning with each other, plans activities that afford our learning together during staff meetings, and supports our attending conferences and bringing in experts.
- Innovation is important. I know this because my and others’ suggestions for work that we might undertake (for me, that includes supporting Building Thinking Classrooms, stepping in to the work on Educator Evaluation, starting the NIC…) is actively supported. We take risks, but not big ones, and we learn from and build on what we learn. A lot of the work we do now was not part of our services when I first joined the organization.
- Family is important. I know this because I’ve been explicitly told by my boss to take whatever flexibility I need, and nothing has ever happened to undermine that message, which I think sometimes happens in careless ways in other places. When my mother died, colleagues stepped in to help with my contracts. We are given the grace to take care of ourselves and our loved ones in the belief that we will make decisions that benefit us and the organization. Some of my best friends are also colleagues, and family in all but the technical sense.
- Compliance is important but nobody sweats it. I have to turn in my receipts and do my timesheets and track my mileage, but everyone is very nice and understanding when I don’t meet deadlines, which is often.
I realize as I’m writing this that it’s really hard to talk about failure or organizational learning more generally without talking about culture, and vice versa. It is worth knowing, as a coach or a leader, what people in your organization think the culture is, specifically around learning and failure. A good way to find out is to ask them. And a good question to start with is: What happens in this organization when you tell your supervisor bad news? As always, if I can help with anything, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023