Article Date: 6/1/2011

Solving the Failure Puzzle

Solving the Failure Puzzle

Many organizations preach risk taking—until the risk doesn't pay off.

From The Editorial Director, Jim Thomas

Consider the following scenario: You've provided each member of your staff with the same succinct script on how to offer retinal imaging to those patients who must pay for the test out of pocket. Yet one technician, Lindsay, consistently convinces more patients to agree to the test.

There could be any number of explanations for Lindsay's success. She might exhibit better people skills (e.g., she makes eye contact and uses a friendly tone when speaking). She might be a more forceful speaker. Or, Lindsay could have changed the script. For instance, she may have added an explanation of how your practice's imaging technology is one of the same technologies used by top retina practices in the United States.

A problem or a solution?

You could view the deviation from the script as a problem, as Lindsay didn't follow instructions. Author and entrepreneur Peter Sims might see the situation from a different perspective: Lindsay took a risk, or made a small bet, that paid off.

In his new book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Free Press, 2011), Mr. Sims discusses how low-risk actions can be taken to develop and test ideas that ultimately lead to big payoffs at some of the world's top organizations, including Amazon, 3M, Pixar and Proctor & Gamble.

These bets often seem counterintuitive. In our example, it would be reasonable to ask, why give more information to a patient who is, in all likelihood, already overwhelmed by information? Besides, there are advantages to following the script. It all but guarantees you will minimize errors and provide each patient with uniform information. But if you want to improve the effectiveness of the script, the script—or its presentation—must change.

The right management structure

I'm not suggesting you free your staff to make any changes they desire. Rather, I'd argue that you should consider a system that encourages staff to “place small bets,” even if they result in failure. These bets must be “placed” at staff meetings, where they are discussed and ultimately, approved by you. Once approved, test the ideas and measure their results before you implement them formally.

Will failure discourage staff from offering new ideas? Maybe, but it's less likely to happen if you replace “failure” with “we've learned a lesson” or “we can always afford to lose small bets.” You might even create an entirely different phrase. As long as it motivates your staff to continue to offer ideas, you've hit the jackpot. OM

Optometric Management, Issue: June 2011