A few weeks ago I was on the phone with an SWR team member, and we were just ending a somewhat emotional conversation. Before we hung up, this team member reminded me, provocatively and with exasperation: “Mike, you need to let me and my team make mistakes, so that we can learn from them ourselves.”

The statement struck a chord with me at the time, and as I write this post, it still stings a little. It left me re-asking some important questions of myself and the organization I lead, now four years into this journey:

  1. How do I allow team members to learn from their own mistakes, while protecting them/the organization from mistakes with “too great” of a potential impact? And where do we draw this line?
  2. In other words: How do we ensure we foster an entrepreneurial, innovative and risk-taking culture, while not sacrificing the high expectations we hold of our external deliverables and results?
  3. Maybe most interestingly, how should we best communicate the mistakes we do make?

Having started SWR out of undergrad and with only experiences working at large tech firms on my resume, I often share with others around me what feels like a strange dichotomy: as individuals, it’s accepted that we all make mistakes, constantly. Yet, when put together as a team in an organization or business, it seems as though there is an expectation of perfection. At best, this seems counter-intuitive. At worst, it can be crippling.

Now, let me state up front: I am a recovering perfectionist. In the early days of SWR, I have been quoted as saying “Our goal is to make as few mistakes as possible.” Eek. My intentions were in the right place: I knew our future success depended on an external brand that was associated with quality, credibility and excellence. I knew then that ‘success breeds success’. But of course I was going about it the wrong way. And in so doing, I was stymieing creativity, innovation and of course, risk-taking.

Individually and as a team, we’ve come a long way. Early on, the entrepreneurial mindset – “fail often, fail fast, fail cheap” – began to enter my consciousness more strongly than my previous corporate experience. Knowing we were in the midst of creating what I now would refer to as a ‘social innovation’, intuitively I knew we had to embrace risk-taking. And as any entrepreneur knows, some of your greatest lessons come from rejection & failure. In my case for example, it took upwards of 70+ rejections before any corporation agreed to invest in joining as a “Founding Partner” of Sustainable Waterloo Region in the middle of the 2008 recession.

So what has changed? Last year, in our 2011 Report, for the first time we included a “fail page”, inspired by our friends at Engineers Without Borders. We publicly and formally shared some key mistakes we made over the past year, as well as the lessons we learned from them. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and so we will be doing the same again in the 2012 Report. On a personal level, I regularly journal about the mistakes I have made, and my own learnings from each. And in conversations with our management team, my goal is to give space for experiential learning, knowing from personal experience these are the most valuable lessons.

Coming back to the conversation at the start of this post though, even in my ongoing reformation I still falter in my aim to create a culture where risk-taking is acceptable. Now as a manager of a team of over 60 people, I find it’s a very delicate balance. The following are some of the principles I am to live by in this balance, hopefully answering some of the questions presented above:

  1. Watch your words: I’m a strong believer in the power of words and language. And at SWR, I know how particularly powerful the words I write and speak can be in shaping the words others use. And so, I aim to no longer position perfection as a goal. I encourage team members to try new things, while encouraging them to think and plan for risks. This very blog, launched over 2 years ago now, is a great example. Here are the words I used back then to describe both the risk & my excitement for the plan we had.
  2. It really is all about balance: SWR is far from a reckless playground for experiential learning. And at the same time, we’re no longer aiming for perfection. I’d like to think we fall somewhere in the middle. On one hand, we’ve identified the areas where perfection is required (think: payroll, invoicing/accounts receivable, and respectful conversations). In other areas, we’re constantly learning: last year we incorrectly reported the emissions of a high-profile RCI member. We wasted quite a bit of time writing a business plan for a water conservation initiative that never merited more than a quick analysis of an empty financial model. And we still sometimes hire talented volunteers without enough to gain from the experience, only to have them move on fairly soon after. But I am proud when I hear from the community that our team is respected for our performance, for our sustainability expertise, and the quality of our program delivery & communication.
  3. Communication is key: If we don’t talk about failure and mistakes, not only will we not get the culture we’re aiming for, but we’ll miss out on the learnings too. So, we’ve intentionally created mechanisms to communicate our mistakes. Internally, we have ‘breakouts’ at each weekly team meeting: 15min sessions for team members to get input, feedback or teach the team on a project/challenge they’re working on. Another option, is to share a mistake and learning from a project. Externally, our best tool is the “fail page” mentioned earlier.

Similar to how we encourage organizations to approach sustainability, I don’t think there is an arrival point in this challenge. Rather, it’s an ongoing quest to balance excellence, risk taking and failure. By constantly reflecting on the challenge, pushing ourselves to be better, and being honest with others about the balance we’re striving for – this is how I hope the Sustainable Waterloo Region team will stay headed in the right direction. Please feel free to send me an email or let me know in the comment section how you think we’re doing.


2 thoughts on “A Delicate Balance

  1. Jana Papke says:

    I really appreciate your honesty and willingness to talk about the mistakes you and SWR has made. As a struggling perfectionist myself, I can relate to the difficulties of letting go and accepting that perfection is not possible all the time! I love the idea of the ‘breakout’ sessions at your team meetings. What a great way to encourage collaboration and risk-taking! Thanks for the post! Jana
    P.S. We have met and corresponded re: WLU Net Impact in 2011. I was on the committee at that time.

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