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the alternative to blame? …Failing Intelligently

There are 3 steps to failing intelligently

1. Make sure the person is aware of the consequences.

I was contracted to do a series of programs for Etisalat, a UAE telco provider who required I do two 3-hour keynotes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, at each of their 7 offices. The first was in Dubai at an auditorium that seated 210 people. It was a Sunday, the first day of the work week in the UAE. The HR director and the HR manager were there to insure a smooth program. By the time everyone came in, the entire audience consisted of 21 people!
After the first talk, the HR director was furious towards the HR manager. She blamed her for the low attendance and told her she had better fill the room for the afternoon session… then she left!
I was left alone with the HR manager who proceeded to complain to me about how unfair her boss was. I felt that this focus would not serve the desired outcome, so I asked her some questions.
“How are you going to get a full house?” I asked. “It’s not possible! I sent out emails and SMS’s before the weekend, they must be responsible to make their own time to attend. I do not control other people’s schedules!” she replied…
To illustrate the consequences, I told her that I believed her boss was looking at it from a value perspective for the company. I explained that based on how much I was being paid for the 3-hour talk, divided by the 21 people who showed up created a very expensive per person cost. I suggested that her boss might feel her investment was not being optimised. And just helping her to do the math, gave her the perspective that she could understand why her boss was angry.

2. Make sure they solve the problem immediately

“What will you do?” I asked. “The same as I did last time. Send emails and SMS to their phones.” “Will that work?” I replied.
“No! Soon everyone will go out for lunch and when they come back they won’t likely read their email in time. And since Etisalat provides free phone service to employees, most men give the SIM card to their wives since they use more airtime… so half will not even see the SMS”. She had already been defeated by her own reaction to the situation.
Then I asked the age-old question that is often the source of frustration: “What do you think you could do that actually will work?”
And she uttered the dreaded words: “I don’t know!” Unfortunately, this is quite common, but for Failing Intelligently to work, THEY must solve the problem themselves! I think of this problem as the Peanut Butter and Brain Syndrome. Like when peanut butter sticks in you mouth and you need to work it as you eat it. When someone says “I don’t know” it’s like their brain has peanut butter in it… the gears aren’t moving, and you need to work it before you can actually get the answer. So I said, “ok, but if you did know, what would you do?” She squinted her eyes at me and said “I don’t know!”… “I know you don’t know, but if you did know, what would you do?” I continued. This when on a few more time with her insisting she did not know what to do… until the peanut butter got worked out, then she had an idea. She said, “actually, I could call the secretaries, they can get to everyone before they go for lunch so they can come directly after.” I asked her if she thought that would work, and she said “yes!” …and it did, the second session was packed, people were standing because there were no more seats. She had succeeded, and it was her idea. How do you think she felt? She owned the success and learned in the process, plus gained more confidence. But even if she would have failed, she would have learned, and if there were more events to be had, I could have helped her again to fail intelligently by asking questions that supported her eventual success.
Which leads to the third step.

3. Ask what could be done to prevent the problem in the future.

Now that the peanut butter is unstuck, they will be able to come up with an intelligent plan or strategy. Now they write it down and think it through, refine it and implement it together wherever possible. If it stays in written stage without any implementation, you lose trust and they may feel their ideas have no value to you, so they stop providing them.
Creating a blame free environment with the Failing Intelligently alternative will not only improve trust and confidence, it improves competence and innovative problem solving.

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