Why CIOs need to learn to use the ‘F word’

I hate most business books. They lie.

It’s not a sin of “commission.” I’m not sure they set about to consciously distort the facts. It’s more often a sin of “omission”. They leave out crucial parts of the story. They often omit the part that offers the greatest learning. They omit what they failed at and more importantly, why they failed.

We learn more from our failures than our successes.  We all know this. So why do we not talk more about our failures in business literature?

I remember first reading through the Balanced Scorecard books. One was a case study about a company that I had actually worked with knew the situation intimately. I have no axe to grind with authors Robert Kaplan and David Norton. I think they are brilliant. But I didn’t recognize that company in their case study. Neither would any of the employees who worked there.

For most of the staff the scorecard was a bad joke. It was finger pointing, buck-passing and numbers that many regarded as fictional.   Everyone was trying to make the numbers look good. I didn’t see that anywhere in the Kaplan and Norton book.

We have all omitted our failures at one time or another. Listen to the way people describe a setback or failure in their careers or in our business. “Someone else did it.” “We were set up to fail.”   “Nothing we could do.” “We warned them it wouldn’t work. Nobody would listen.” Only rarely do you hear – “I totally blew it” or “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. “

Years ago I worked with another senior manager. We reported to the same boss, a partner in a major consulting firm.   The other manager was clearly a favourite of the partner and was often held up as an example of someone who “ran a tight ship”. This other manager continually found and revealed mistakes that his staff made. He made sure there were clear consequences. These revelations were so frequent, that at one point I thought his whole staff must be on probation.

Clearly they felt the same way. His staff was absolutely demoralized. They lived in fear of making a mistake. They hated working for him. They complained to senior management, but their messages fell on deaf ears. Of course staff would complain about someone who was demanding high quality work.

Our boss continued to point out the virtues of this tough management approach and continue to suggest that I could take some lessons from my rival.   Being a bit of a smart ass, here’s how I responded:

“Maybe I could learn something. You know, every day I make a mistake. Once a week I make a big mistake. At least once a month, I cause a major screw up and spend hours and sometimes days fixing it.   He never makes a mistake. Only his staff makes mistakes.   You’re right. I should learn his secret.”

The partner looked up from his work. I saw realization dawn in his face for the first time. He frowned. Message received. He said, “point taken”.

Even if it doesn’t go to the extreme of blaming others, omitting our own failures is not a victimless crime. The fact is that everyone screws up. We all know it. At best, when we stubbornly claim success when others know differently, we lose credibility.

At it’s worst, this inability to admit mistakes leads to passing the buck, finger pointing and ensures that mistakes will continue to be hidden. It creates a toxic culture, where morale plummets and results are affected. We miss any opportunity to learn eliminate the real cause of the errors. It’s a vicious circle.

I remember an executive named Larry Hudson, COO of the old AT&T Canada. He shared one of the most important lessons he’d learned in his career. “I learned to never pull on a piece of cable until you are absolutely sure what’s on the other end.”

A room full of technical staff smiled. We’d all done the same thing. We had all acted in haste or with too much confidence – or without fully checking our work.   We’d broken a rule. We’d shortcut a process, because it looked simple or because we were in a hurry. Whatever the reason, however minor the task, we had all also learned that a simple failure could have dire consequences.

Larry could have chosen to lecture us on following he rules.  He could have given a tough talk on the penalty for failing to follow procedure. Instead he chose to share what failing had taught him.   That honesty established a bond with us all. The message resonated.

When I’m training, mentoring or addressing a group I’ve tried to learn from Larry. I try to talk honestly about what I have screwed up rather than always focusing on what I’ve been successful at. I do it so much I make a joke about it – I confess that I’ve actually done a couple of things right. I haven’t screwed up everything in my career.

So why is it that day after day in business books, corporate presentations and case studies all we get is the talk about successes? Sure, they talk about obstacles but these are are only there to illustrate the epic triumphs of effort and will to succeed.   There are few “Homer Simpson” moments where we learned the hard way what that cable was really connected to.

Failure isn’t a crime. To fail without learning and without sharing that learning – that is a crime. Failing and giving up – is even worse.

To avoid failure, we stay in our comfort zone. No person or business that has been wildly successful by staying in their comfort zone.   Every time we grow as a person it’s uncomfortable.

If we can’t say the F-word we stay in the comfort zone. We take only safe bets. We avoid failure. We give up too easily.

Michael Jordan summed it up in a famous quote. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.   And that is why I succeed.”

When we are confident enough to be absolutely brutally honest and frank about where we have missed the mark – we learn. When we don’t give up we learn and we learn until we learn how to succeed.

It’s tough. You may feel like you have put your “fingers into the shape of L on your forehead”, as the song goes. It may feel like AA as you stand up and say, “My name is Jim and I have failed.”  That’s one reason why some people can’t say the F word.

It won’t change overnight. But we can start moving in the right direction. I’ve learned to change the language. It’s brutally frank, but it also acknowledges that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

I ask two questions:

What have we done well? What could we do better?

This simple change of phrasing disarms our fear of the F-word. We are more open to talking about our shortcomings when we change our approach and reflect that in our language.

However you get there, if you can really address failures in a non-threatening, open-minded manner, you will indeed see improvement.   Nobody wants to fail. They just don’t know how to avoid it.
Do what works. Be authentic. Be real. Experiment and learn how to make the process better. But whatever you do, go ahead – use the F word – proudly.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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