TMA Resources held a series of three webcasts recently on the topic of “Beyond Relevance.” It was partially inspired by a blog post I wrote last September that pointed out how mere relevance doesn’t cut it for me any more. I want more, and that desire has been fueled by the fact that I get more out of my associations by engaging in social media. So the third of the three beyond relevance sessions included me plus Maddie and Shana Glickfield (community manager for NextGenWeb, the online community for the US Telecom Association) and we talked in more detail about the role of social media when it comes to getting beyond relevant.
In the planning for that third webcast, something occurred to me. Social media is very powerful, and a big piece of its power comes from its speed and agility. And part of that speed and agility is derived from a fairly odd piece of social media’s identity: it’s not afraid to die. There is a general expectation in the social media world that whatever tool you are using today is probably NOT going to be the tool you use tomorrow. Social media is organized around a culture of experimentation, eternal beta, and the overall expectation that if your tool fails, it’s no big deal. Failure is fine. Everyone just realigns and keeps moving forward.
Organizations, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. Death is a big deal–particularly if you are an association with decades or even centuries of history. It was a lot of hard work to set up that organization, grow it to where it has staff–maybe even its own building. We can’t just let that all go to waste, right? And of course, the actual costs of death and rebirth are significantly greater for a sizable organization (as compared to a social media tool, for instance). So I don’t expect organizations to be exactly like social media.
But I do think organizations need to pay attention to their focus on not dying. Our fear of death (organizationally) causes us to behave in ways that don’t support our life. It pushes us to settle for being merely relevant, because that way we can keep enough members to keep going. It makes “risk” a bad word. It can make us afraid of our own dreams and our own potential. I am not saying we need to run our organizations with reckless abandon, or close (and reopen) our doors any time we need to move in a new strategic direction. But I am saying we need to be more welcoming of failure. We need to try more things and do more things so that we can learn what’s going to work. This is not a particularly new message, of course (just ask the innovation folks).
But I don’t know that we have made the right connection between a culture that fears organizational death and our inability to experiment on a tactical level and support innovation. Logic says we can still experiment and innovate while maintaining a healthy fear of having it all crumble, but I don’t see that in practice. In practice it’s all lumped into one problem. If we fail small, it means we are one step closer to failing big. So let’s just do what is safe and gets us through to next year. We need to figure out ways to create an organization that avoids death and embraces life at the same time. Decentralized, transparent, and no fear is probably a good start. Here are some other ideas:
- Add experimentation as small budget line items. Give people the freedom to invest in a small project that can generate learning.
- Tell your staff about times when you took a chance and it didn’t pan out. Then tell them again. Then tell them that you told them. Make the “good” failure (i.e., when we learn from it) more visible in your organization. If you (senior people) never talk about failure, people will naturally conclude that failure is a very bad thing.
- Sharpen your metrics. As much as social media doesn’t like “ROI,” it also (as a community) works very hard on figuring out how to measure what matters. We don’t do this enough in our organization. We have “standard” metrics that don’t always help us make decisions. If you want to embrace failure, you’ll have to know (better) whether or not you’ve failed.
Those are off the top of my head. Any other suggestions for how to create organizations that (like social media) can more fully embrace the messiness of life?