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is the price of failure high enough?

September 27, 2011

Stick, duct tape and copper pipe

Take a look at the object in the photo.

Have a guess what it is worth.

If you came up with a figure around ten times your weekly wage then you are in the ball park.

How does a stick, duct tape and a discarded piece of copper plumbing come to be worth that much?

Because that was the price of failure…

On the school holidays kids can (and should) get up to all sorts of mischief. At my house last week that meant locking both doors to a downstairs room. Two doors that we do not have keys to.

I got a phone call on the way home from seeing a client informing me of the situation and inviting me to consider how we might want to deal with it.

The answer? The girls can pay for the locksmith.

The response from my eldest? She disappeared to the workshop downstairs…

As I went out later that afternoon a prototype solution utilising rope was being tested on the deadbolt on the workshop door (The broom and rake having failed). The plan appeared to be to go in through the bars of a nearby window and lasso the catch. The trials looked promising but ultimately the rope project went the way of the broom and rake.

I returned home after dark to find every downstairs door thrown triumphantly open and my trainee burglar sporting a grin the Cheshire Cat himself would be proud of. When asked later my youngest daughter said she was not concerned because she knew the eldest would do anything to avoid the price of failure – having to pay for the locksmith.

The idea of setting the price of failure high enough to encourage innovation and learning is something I have been thinking about of late. There is a lot of discussion around whether games can be used to encourage learning – both in schools and in organisations. If the price of failure is essentially zero there is no motivation for anyone to learn. If it is too high then it prevents people from being able to take risks or trying something new. You have to find a balance.

For me the best example of this is the way ethics training is usually delivered. Participants sit in a classroom and are presented with situations that point towards an ethical problem. A number of possible responses are offered:

  • deliberately break the law,
  • pretend you didn’t see what happened,
  • an ineffective response,
  • the correct response.

Of course, apart from the odd joker, most people will say that if they were in that situation they would respond correctly to the situation. Yes even if it was a member of my team…

The problem with that approach is that in a classroom the price of failure is almost zero. You have attended and participated in discussion so you can’t fail, but have you really learnt anything?

Surely you want your people to be able to practice.

Nobody wants to fly on an airline who’s only training for their cabin crew is to read the manual and correctly answer 10 multiple choice questions on what to do when smoke fills the cabin!

You want them to have practiced – in a real cabin full of smoke. You want them to have made some mistakes and you want them to have had the chance to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them.

So why is it, when every organisation proclaims a set of Corporate Values, has a Code of Conduct and can point to an ‘Ethics and Compliance Manager’ that most are content to let their staff make their way through their day armed only with the answers to multiple choice questions?

Reporting a hypothetical team member for a major breach of the Code of Conduct is easy to do. Reporting a friend who you have worked with for many years for a minor breach (but a breach nonetheless) is a very different matter. The price of failure is much, much higher.

I am not interested in what you would do. I am only interested in talking about what you did do.

And if you didn’t report them then let’s talk about why. What influenced you to make that choice? Would you make the same choice again? Why? Why not?

The world has repeatedly seen what happens when organisations fail to instill in their staff a real sense, a practiced sense, of values and ethics. We cannot afford to let them continue to fail to learn.

It is time to get serious and let them play.


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