Tuesday, February 28, 2012

True Grit #2 - English girls' school tries a "failure week"

According to the BBC, the Wimbledon High School near London will hold a "failure week" in February to teach its high-performing students that it's better to try new things and fail at them than to play it safe and try to sidestep situations where failure is possible.

The headmistress, Heather Hanbury, said she wanted to show "it is completely acceptable and completely normal not to succeed at times in life."...

There will be workshops, assemblies, and activities for the girls, with parents and tutors joining in with tales of their own failures.

There will be YouTube clips of famous and successful people who have failed along the way and moved on.

The emphasis will be discussions on the merits of failure and on the negative side of trying too hard not to fail.

This is a perfect time to teach that learning and development are more important than 100% grades. My high school experience was prime time for the pursuit of grades rather than learning, which I find really annoying in hindsight (in other words, that was a mistake :).

The headmistress' thinking is reminiscent of the importance of "grit" - the ability to bounce back from failure promoted by the University of Pennsylvania's Angela Duckworth. I hope headmistress Hanbury lets the girls know that mistakes can open up new vistas and new opportunities, worlds of possibility, rather than the closet of "perfection or nothing."

NB: The Failure Week was held from February 6-10 and here are some of the learnings from it. My favorite quote: "We just lost in debating this week – we’ve been joking: is that what it’s about??"

If by "it" you mean developing a sense of humor around your fallibility, the answer is yes--that's what it's about.

[Hat tip to @brainology]

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Power of Confronting Your Own Weakness

I recently read a headline from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge that intrigued me: "Learning From My Success and From Others' Failure." It's a very important paper and I will be posting in more detail on it later, but what struck me immediately upon reading the abstract was the finding that learning from others' failure is easier than learning from one's own failures.

Then I read "The Crucible of Leadership" from the great Jerry Colonna as published in Fred Wilson's AVC blog. Among the many gifts of that post was a powerful story, which read in part:

Take as an example a client I worked with intensely over the last few weeks. She and a co-founder have been killing each other (okay, I have a flair for the overstatement…still, they have both been getting sick with a host of ailments—migraines and stomach problems). The arguments had gotten so bad that neither could stand to be in the same room with the other. Even I was exasperated. During one late night call, I asked my client to forget, for a moment, whether her co-founder was right or wrong. “I don’t care who’s right,” I said with my voice rising. “The only thing we have to focus on is what are you supposed to be learning from this.”

There was a long silence. I thought, “Okay. You’ve really pushed her too far. You and your woo-woo ‘lessons in the pain’ crap.” But then: alchemy. She opened up. “This is really shameful to admit,” she began, “but I know I’m a pain in the ass because I have to be right, all the time. I know it’s wrong but I can’t stop myself.”

And with that we had something to work with. I pressed her: Given this tendency, what do you really believe? What values do you hold? What kind of company do you want to build? And what kind of adult do you want to be?

Over the next few weeks, on guard for her need to be right, we carefully went to work changing her approach to the co-founder. For her, the crucible moment came in facing her shame, acknowledging who she really has been and as a result she got to choose how she wanted to manage and who she wanted to be.

We forge our truest identity by facing our fears, our prejudices, our passions, and the source of our aggression.

I would add to that last sentence "our weaknesses." Learning from mistakes doesn't only mean learning from others' mistakes. It means learning about ourselves, our deepest weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Is it harder to confront and take these lessons to heart? Of course. Jerry Colonna's client is a great example of that. But the rewards are manifold. The client is now able to confront this persistent and damaging situation with her partner, and can take this knowledge of herself into all her future interactions.

The lessons from our own failures "leave a deep imprint," but are also lessons that serve us the rest of our lives. Don't settle for only learning from others' mistakes. If you do, you're only halfway to where you need to get.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York Giants and Jeremy Lin demonstrate how to accept and learn from mistakes

I'm still basking in the afterglow surrounding the Giants' recent Super Bowl win. A Sports Illustrated article mentioned something that might have helped develop the remarkable resiliency that characterized their late season and playoff performances. Here's a brief excerpt:

During the bye week following a 4-2 start, director of player development Charles Way invited fighter pilots from Afterburner Inc., a corporate training company, to address the team about the value of "debriefing" sessions. Pilots returning from missions build trust through sessions in which they sit in a room together, stripped of name and rank; each speaks openly about mistakes he made during the mission. Players also received a copy of a book by one of the pilots, James D. Murphy, the title of which expressed the ultimate goal: Flawless Execution.

Soon Manning and Tuck, respectively, were leading offensive and defensive debriefings the day after games. Coaches were not present. Meetings lasted from 20 minutes to an hour. "I wasn't coaching anybody," Manning says. "I was just coaching myself, looking at what I needed to do better and telling everybody. Then everybody would talk about what they needed to do to improve."

Says linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, "There was a time there when we needed every single minute of [debriefing]. It wasn't about calling people out. It was an opportunity to see everybody hold themselves accountable. The big part of why we're here is that fingers don't get pointed. These kind of teams don't come along very often."

If accountability and execution characterized New York's undefeated run from 7--7, those qualities were beacons during the Super Bowl.

This practice recalls some of Robin Ely's great research on learning among oil-platform workers and Amy Edmondson's work on hospital nursing teams, as well as Justin Menkes writing on leadership. Learning and performance are enhanced when people are unafraid to share mistakes, when they look to themselves first ("owning their missteps") instead of blaming others.

In a similar vein, here's what Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin said in his postgame interview after hitting the game-winning shot against the Toronto Raptors: "I did a horrible job on Barbosa and Calderon... Shump did an unbelievable job... I let them get into a flow early, and that's on me. He bailed me out." Very little about his good performances, a lot about what his teammates did well, and what he can improve. Here's the interview:

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Social app company Path apologizes for importing customer address books without asking

This week, there was a big to-do over the discovery that social-media startup Path had been uploading customers' address books without permission. The latest turn of events is an apology from CEO Dave Morin. It says, in part:

We are sorry.

We made a mistake. Over the last couple of days users brought to light an issue concerning how we handle your personal information on Path, specifically the transmission and storage of your phone contacts.

As our mission is to build the world’s first personal network, a trusted place for you to journal and share life with close friends and family, we take the storage and transmission of your personal information very, very seriously.

Through the feedback we’ve received from all of you, we now understand that the way we had designed our ‘Add Friends’ feature was wrong. We are deeply sorry if you were uncomfortable with how our application used your phone contacts.

In the interest of complete transparency we want to clarify that the use of this information is limited to improving the quality of friend suggestions when you use the ‘Add Friends’ feature and to notify you when one of your contacts joins Path––nothing else. We always transmit this and any other information you share on Path to our servers over an encrypted connection. It is also stored securely on our servers using industry standard firewall technology.

Now, I much prefer the straightforward "We Are Sorry" at the top of the post, as opposed to "we are sorry if you were uncomfortable..." that comes later. Imagine that I insulted you, and you pushed back, and I said, "I'm sorry if you took my comments the wrong way." You would not consider that much of an apology.

Morin's apology sounds like that. A straightforward statement such as, "We are sorry that we used your contacts without permission" would have been more to the point.

This "sorry you were uncomfortable" apology reveals that the company thinks what it did was correct and justified, and only because it garnered bad publicity did they do anything about it. This says something about social web services like Path. They feel that they deserve access to your information, and would prefer to do it without asking, unless people find out about it. I'll try to remember that when I get the next signup request for a new service.

What do you think? Is this a heartfelt apology? Does Path even feel they made a mistake?

A thought on due diligence

The following was posted as a comment to the old Ning Mistake Bank site. It's part of that site's archive but I no longer know who wrote it. Whoever it was, they were pretty wise:

Several of the stories posted on the site are on lack of due diligence causing problems later. However, we rarely look back on situations where we did too much due diligence. What opportunities did we not take because we looked too closely at them? Might some of them turned out great? I think circumstances influence our level of due diligence, especially when we're self-employed. When you need that next gig, or really want to make a certain deal, our brains look at the bright side and muffle our skeptical side. Sometimes that causes us problems, and sometimes it turns out great.

By the way, if you were the person who posted it and would like attribution, I'm happy to give that to you. Post a comment and I'll get in touch with you.

...and after rereading this post, it occurs to me that a tool that addresses this is possible. Something like an "reverse due diligence" - looking at the absolute worst case outcome of a decision, and comparing it to the possible upside, as a rationale for going ahead with the decision.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

VC Fred Wilson: "Wear failures as a badge of honor"

Fred Wilson's A VC blog is a great source of information on investing and venture capital. And it's one of the few blogs where the comments are consistently a source of great insight. In 2009 Fred posted a story and thoughts on the topic of failure:

Barack Obama said this in his "back to school speech":

you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time

That's so true. It took me a while to learn that lesson.

When I first started out in the venture capital business, I was afraid to make a mistake. Once I started investing and taking board seats myself, I worked super hard to avoid losing money. I went for almost a decade without making a losing investment.

But then in the aftermath of the internet bubble, the wheels came off of the bus. We wrote off close to twenty investments in the span of two years from late 2000 to late 2002. It was devastating on many levels.

But when I look back on my career, it is not the successes that I think back on most. It is the failures, and particularly those two years when everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

When Brad and I started Union Square Ventures in 2003, we laid out a roadmap for what kind of firm we wanted to create, what kind of investments we'd make, and how we thought the Internet was going to evolve. That work was largely a result of the lessons we both had learned in the aftermath of the bubble.

I think embracing failure is one of the things that makes this country such a great place to do business in. In many parts of the world, if you fail once, you are done. People won't touch you with a ten foot pole. But here in the US, it's almost a badge of honor. And our President explains why.

When we met with entrepreneurs, I'm always interested in their failures. And most people have them, you just have to dig a bit to find them. If someone has failed and taken the time to learn from it, I think that's a big positive. It makes us even more excited to back them the next time.

So don't hide your failures. Wear them as a badge of honor. And most of all, learn from them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Super Bowl special #2 - "Two good things happened" after Patriots punter embarrassed himself in front of 100,000

From Sports Illustrated:

[New England Patriots punter] Zoltan Mesko does not need much prodding to launch into a story about what was at once both his most embarrassing and most famous moment as a Michigan Wolverine.

One of the Wolverines’ longest-running traditions is to leap up and slap an eight-foot-tall “Go Blue” banner as they sprint onto the field before a home game. As a senior in 2009, Mesko was one of the first players out for Michigan’s season-opener against Western Michigan.

Only he was a little too enthusiastic. The 6-foot-5 punter got a little too much air and smacked the banner hard — a little too hard — with both hands. That caused him to lose his balance and tumble awkwardly to the turf, where he was smacked into by several of the 80 or so hard-charging Wolverines running behind him.

The clip hit YouTube immediately. ESPN’s “GameDay” interviewed Mesko after the Wolverines’ eventual win, just to talk about the banner incident.

Mesko laughed the mishap off then. And now, despite being in the NFL for two years and making his first Super Bowl, he’s still more than happy to talk about it.

“So, two good things that came about because of that, besides a lot of laughs,” Mesko said Thursday. “I got a little one-minute special on ‘Gameday’ — they interviewed me about what was happening when I was getting trampled.

“And second, a sorority noticed it was at 90,000 views on YouTube, and they said they’d throw a party for the football team when it hit a (hundred thousand).”

The original YouTube video reached that milestone, and Mesko took his teammates to celebrate at that impromptu sorority get-together. Consider that the prime example why Mesko was a huge hit with his Michigan teammates and a veritable legend around campus.

Here's the video:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowl special: the 3 mistakes that created the New England Patriots' dynasty

Sports Illustrated, writing about Super Bowl 46 between the Patriots and the Giants, outlines three decisions, which appeared to be mistakes at the time, that created the modern Patriots, a team that has been to the Super Bowl five out of the past 12 seasons.

1) Overpaying for the franchise. While bidding for the Patriots in 1993, Robert Kraft felt that the team was worth $115 million, and he was prepared to pay up to $125 million for the team. Prior to this, the Patriots had been owned by a succession of goofy owners (remember Victor Kiam?) and played in the worst stadium in the league. When James Orthwein asked for $172 million (the largest price ever asked for an NFL team at the time), Kraft swallowed hard and paid up, though at the time no one (including his wife) thought it was a price worth paying.

2) Hiring Bill Belichick as coach. Belichick, a successful assistant coach with the Giants for many years, had an undistinguished run as Browns head coach from 1991 to 1995. Nonetheless, after the 2000 season, Kraft had his eye on Belichick, then an assistant with the New York Jets, as a possible head coach for his team. At the time Kraft had decided to hire him, Belichick was under contract to the Jets to become their head coach if then coach Bill Parcells were to retire - which happened the same day that Kraft asked for permission to negotiate with Belichick. After the dust settled (Belichick submitted a famous resignation letter written on a napkin: "I have decided to resign as HC of the NYJ.") It cost the Patriots a valuable first-round draft choice to compensate the Jets for signing Belichick, a price that seemed steep at the time. In hindsight, it was a tremendous bargain.

3) Replacing Drew Bledsoe with Tom Brady at quarterback. Bledsoe was the best quarterback in Patriots history and had led them to the Super Bowl. He had been the #1 overall pick in the draft the year he came out of college. Brady was the 199th player picked the year he came out. In Brady's second year, Bledsoe got hurt, and Brady led the team well in his absence. When Bledsoe was healthy again later in the season, many (including me) assumed Bledsoe would get his starting job back. Belichick and Kraft thought otherwise. They stayed with Brady and the rest is history.

Bold moves that seemed like missteps at the time, and turned out to be brilliant mistakes after all.

CEO Sergio Marchionne: Fiat 500 launch "poorly executed"

Fiat & Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne explains why the US launch of the Fiat 500 undershot company projections. "Speaking bluntly," he says, "the launch was poorly executed." He doesn't say "I screwed it up," but he doesn't give excuses or deflect blame. This is showing a sense of agency. Marchionne also doesn't overreact to this data point, and takes the long view - this is the first step in reintroducing Fiat's cars to the US marketplace. It's a great 2-minute lesson in how a CEO should talk in public.

(Hat tip to Stephen Wunker)