Safety and exploration

Photo by eyeliam

I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?



Photo by Martin Burns

Today Passover is celebrated. Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The bible (Old Testament) tells us that as the Israelites were preparing to escape from Egypt after 430 years, Both God and Moses took time to instruct them. This is what I wrote about this in an E-book titled Humanism, Liberalism, Education and the Bible – The Ravings of a Secular Israeli Jew:

When Moses instructs the people of Israel before their escape from Egypt, he can talk about a lot of things – about the power of God, about the land that is waiting for them, about the preparations they need to do, but in the words he chose, you already see what will later become a foundation of the Jewish belief: “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?” (Exodus 12, 26); “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying, It is because of that which Jehovah did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13, 8); “And it shall be, when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand Jehovah brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Exodus 13, 14).

The Jewish tradition holds that each and every person needs to see himself as though he was personally freed from slavery in Egypt. And at least once a year each person should celebrate and be thankful for that freedom. Thus, in the last few years, I developed a habit of thinking (and writing) about freedom at this time of the year. I am happy not be a slave and hope slavery will be forever abolished. But to be absolutely truthful, this is not the kind of freedom that I yearn for because I it is not relevant to my own everyday experience. There are, on the other hand, a number of freedoms that I feel are relevant to me and to the people around me. For my family, friends, readers and everybody else, I wish the following:

The freedom to fear – fear could be a negative and limiting emotion. It can prevent us from fulfilling our true potential. It can stop us from connecting with other people and enjoying life in the fullest possible way. It is, however, also a positive emotion, if used correctly. It connects us to reality. It can make us feel alive. It can push us forward and challenge us. We need to be free to fear without comprises. Instead of telling our children (and ourselves) not to fear we need to encourage them (and us) to fear freely. Only by standing up to our fear, confronting it, poking it, understanding it and facing it we can overcome it and use it for our own good. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acting despite of fear.

The freedom to fail – failure is what makes us human. Literally. If DNA was copied perfectly every time we would not have evolution which is based on errors. All successes are a result of multiple failures. If we embrace failure and focus on learning from it instead of avoiding it, we can actually reach higher personal and societal achievements. Failure will come. Shouldn’t we at least greet it warmly?

The freedom from perfect – continuing the last two points, perfect is an evil overlord. Yes, excellence is a worthwhile goal. Excellence however is not reached by being perfect every time but by showing up and giving our best again and again. In many instance, perseverance is better equipped to serve us in the long run than absolute performance every single time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We should be free to say: “this is good enough!”

The freedom to be unique – we are – each and every one of us – special. People are social animals and many of own instincts push us towards conformity. It is sometimes a helpful process. But conformity doesn’t have to mean mediocrity. We should be free to choose, show, and flaunt our own uniqueness as human beings. They say every finger-print is unique and one of a kind. I say – every human-print is unique and one of a kind. Why should we give it up?

Freedom to be happy – finally, and for me most importantly, I wish for the freedom to be happy. As science reveals more and more about happiness we understand that not only happiness is something that happens naturally, we understand how much societies, cultures and norms are built-in ways that prevent us from being happy. Happiness is choice. Not an easy one. If it was easy it wouldn’t be worth the effort. But it is a choice. We should all be free to pursue it. Do you?

Happy Passover.


The culture and processes of learning from failure

Photo by Luc Galoppin

Joshua Gans writes in

The idea is that one innovator’s failure yields important information as to where to experiment next. That is, failure brings with it learning. Specifically, without information on failure, it is easy to believe that continued success is based on skill rather than luck. As game theorists Drew Fudenberg and David Levine showed, your false beliefs, left unchallenged, can be self-confirming. Of course, having more experiments, and failed experiments at that, will provide a necessary ingredient for that task. But it isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to learn about the failure and then learn from it … When it is the same person who fails and tries again, that path is easy. But it’s really very hard to learn from someone else’s experience of failure. Indeed, for all we know, we already have plenty of failure. We just haven’t learned enough from it.

Learning from failure, like learning in general, and especially in organizational settings is dependent on two factors:

1. Processes and habits – as Gans points out – of people don’t know about it, they can’t learn from it. although it seems like a waste of time in the present moment, stopping everything else to make sure everybody knows about failure will allow a team to reap benefits in the long fun. And as long as the team is already learning about the failure, it should also take active steps to learn from the failure. Setting out reflection time is just as important as passing the information around. The task of the system (and its manager) is to transform data and information into knowledge and wisdom in a way that allows intuition and practical wisdom to play out.

2. Culture – it is in vague lately to say that we are negatively biased towards failure. HBR have been focusing on this issue in the last few weeks. I guess it is true. But awareness in not enough. In order to change the attitude and behaviors of people and gain from the benefits of failure, there is a need to create a culture that embraces positive failures and leads then through a process of learning. This means focusing on the right norms and more importantly, maintaining them.

Is the culture in your team supportive of failure? What are the active steps you are taking in order to make failures into learning opportunities?


Book review: Poke the Box by Seth Godin

I am an avid reader of Seth Godin’s work. Just looking at the size of his tag on this blog you understand that he has been a great inspiration for my writing. Thus, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that I am very excited with his new project to re-define and re-shape how book publishing is done (the domino project).

One of the first titles is called: Poke the Box. In it, Godin continues his assault on the resistance that is holding us back, which he started in his wonderful book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The main point of the book is: what would happen if we all took more initiative and just started things? More importantly: what the hell is stopping us? The book praises practical initiative taking, not just for the sake of initiating but for the sake of shipping – delivering a product or idea to the market.

I found three interesting concepts going all through the book:

1. We got the attitude toward failure all wrong. Failure has a bad rep. it is misunderstood and misused. It represents opportunity, learning and improvement. Instead we fear it and try everything in our powers to prevent it. However, not failing means not doing. Or as Godin puts it: “The more you do, the more you fail”. Our aim should be to do, so it should be to also fail. A lot.

If you fail once, and big, you don’t fail the most. The game is over, you’re a failure, you’re busted, you’re in jail. But you don’t fail the most. If you never fail, either you’re really lucky or you haven’t shipped anything. But if you succeed often enough to be given the privilege of failing next time, then you’re on the road to a series of failures. Fail, succeed, fail, fail, fail, succeed—you get the idea. Talk to any successful person. He’ll be happy to fill you in on his long string of failures.

2. Leaders are map makers. People need maps to show them where to go. Literally, in experiments done on lost people, they just walked around in circles. However, you can wait for the map to come or you can create your own map. Are as Godin says: “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them”. When I say “leaders are map makers” I am not necessarily talking about leaders in the traditional way. I am talking about people who make things happen; who try something new; who take us to a better future by not obeying the rules, because the rule book of the future has not been written yet. They understand that they need to write it as they go along.

If there’s no clear right answer, perhaps the thing you ought to do is something new. Something new is often the right path when the world is complicated.

3. Initiative is also about voice. Godin writes: “Sure, ideas that spread, win, but ideas that don’t get spoken always fail”. Many of most obvious inventions we have today were at some point heresy. When those who thought about them voiced them all hell broke loose (just listen to this podcast to see how it still is happening today in places you wouldn’t even imagine). But if we don’t voice ideas what is the alternative? Nothing. Can we honestly say that is a better thing?

We’re trained to fit in, not to stand out, and the easiest way in the world to fit in is to never initiate. Don’t speak up. If you see something, don’t say anything. In fact, we spend most of our days waiting for permission to start”

Poke the Box is a quick fun read. While it is not ground breaking like some of Godin’s other books (Linchpin for example) it does make you think and doubt some of your previous choices. After reading Linchpin and reading Godin’s blog everyday for the last three years, I did not find a lot of new ideas in the book. That does not mean, that some of the old ideas are not important. If you don’t frequent Godin’s blog you should. And you should also buy the book. Hopefully, it will drive you to poke the box, try and ship.


Process and attitude or results and luck?

Photo by striatic

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning:

An organization where only success counts, and one in which an employee who does all the right things and fails is evaluated by the same measure as one who fails because of ineptitude, is an organization that is not likely to generate a great deal of loyalty. It is a part of management function to recognize and reward the performance and the attitude of employees, and not just their success, which may be due to entirely to fortuitous circumstances.

And it is not only a matter of loyalty, but of long-term success. Yes, results matter. Without results nobody will be able to succeed, long-term or short-term. But focusing too much on the “bottom line” results might be detrimental. Not only is luck involved many times, it is also a recipe for repeating mistakes. And most of all, it disregards the human element. If you ignore what people feel and think you will lose them on the way. And without the people, where will you be. And as Csikszentmihalyi points out, you owe your employees to keep those who really give all they can and have the potential (does all the right things) from those who are just not right for the job (ineptitude).

So – when you evaluate people do you focus only on results (and luck) or do you also focus on the process and attitude?


To fail forward

Photo by KaiChanVong


Jeff Stibel in an blog post titled Avoid Decisions, Avoid Life, writes:

To fail forward, you must create many decisions, each incrementally improving your businesses. This is the opposite of a Six Sigma discipline and probably has no place on an assembly line (or a surgery bed). But it drives many companies forward, as they become enabled to make calculated decisions that lead to learning, growth, and ultimately success. Success by failure is not an oxymoron.

For me, Stibel’s explanation touches to the heart of the difference between the management approach of the old economy (efficiency, standardization, productivity and thus – rules!) and the new economy (effectiveness, value through human interaction, creativity, practical wisdom and thus – no more rules!).

As usual, I am not saying that Six Sigma (or all productivity driven approaches) is a bad idea or that is should never be implemented. I am just saying that the foundations on which Six Sigma (and similar methods) is built on are not fit for more and more of the challenges modern business are facing.

Failure (and more importantly, learning from failure) is the heart of innovation as it is at the heart of developing practical wisdom. If we don’t want people to become cogs, we need to create an atmosphere that promotes failing forward. Many business today depend on their people’s passion, creativity and initiative. By implementing, as Stibel says, the opposite discipline, there is slim chance of tapping into these resources.



You are not listening to me

Photo by ky_olsen


It happened last week. I got into an argument with someone close to me. Very close. Well, that happens frequently enough, but this argument was one of those arguments that quickly became explosive and went to high volume shouting. It has been more than a week since, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

When I think about it, it still bugs me. I know I was right (what good does that for me now?). I know I was agitated and tired (I was in pain because I had two of my wisdom teeth removed a few days before). I know I was under a lot of stress (the subject of the argument was a document of legal importance). And all of that does not really matter. Because I feel it was a personal failure on my part.

A big part of this blog deals with interpersonal communication. I constantly write about how to manage difficult conversation and conflict. How to ask question and how to give feedback. I know everything (well, a lot) about the methods that should help a person communicate calmly and almost “emotion free”. And still, I failed.

And that got me thinking, if I failed, what chance do people who are not as versed as I am to successfully engage in difficult conversations? After being very pessimistic about this issue for a few days, I finally decided that even the best professionals can fail from time to time. The question is, whether we learn from our mistakes. In addition, none of the methods I write about are bullet proof. We are not robots. For good and for bad, sometimes, our emotions will have the better of us. So, I decided to focus on one issue that I relearned while shouting.

More than anything, when I go over the conversation in my head, I remember saying: “you are not listening to me”. And getting the anticipated response: “you are not listening to me!”. When I give feedback workshops I always advise people to mirror the other side’s behaviors and your own emotions and thoughts! The trouble starts when people try to mirror the other side emotions and thoughts. The problem is that we only have assumptions. Something I read today in an article called: “Too Hot to Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict” by Amy C. Edmondson  and Diana McLain Smith in the California Management Review:

The discipline of mapping requires paying strict attention to what people are doing, not why they’re doing it—that is, to the behaviors or actions of the people around the table, not their intentions or motives.

Building on this idea, you can understand why the sentence “you are not listening to me” can be  so easily misused. It seems like a behavioral description but it is actually an intention, motive or cognitive description. It suggests that the person in front of you does not understand you or is disrespectful, when it might be that he is actually just trying to get his message across. And what happens when you attempt to tell someone what he is thinking or feeling – he is insulted and reacts, usually passionately, by making similar accusation towards you… and from there… usually all hell breaks loose (as I now know too well).

So, what did I learn?

  1. We all fail sometimes! The question is whether we learn from it or not.
  2. Emotions are hard to control, but by being a little more aware of the words we use, we can try and “cool down” any argument.
  3. “You are not listening to me” is a very dangerous phrase that I, and everybody involved in an argument might want to try and refrain from using.


You are not listening to me