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Creating a culture of blameless problem-solving

Companies that fail exceptionally have the potential for greatness.
Creating a culture of blameless problem-solving

Finance is complex, and whenever you have complication and uncertainty, it is a given that things will go wrong at some point. When they do, the best way to deal with those mistakes is to use them to learn and grow. And the only way an organisation can be aware of issues while they’re still small-scale is to create an environment in which employees and managers at all levels feel safe voicing their concerns and thoughts.

“The reality is human beings will make mistakes,” said Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. “When we’re in novel settings, beyond just mistakes, we’ll also have failures that aren’t, strictly speaking, mistakes because no one’s ever been in that situation before. The most important thing is that you hear about what went wrong in a timely way because that’s how you can jump on it and avoid larger-scale problems.”

Companies that foster a culture of blameless problem-solving have the potential to learn from what goes wrong, and also to innovate, through smart experimentation, while companies that habitually blame individuals are in danger of running into large-scale disasters without a hint of impending doom, according to Edmondson.

Here are some tips for creating a workplace environment in which people feel they can speak up about what’s happening and collectively work hard to improve and avoid big problems:

Promote smart experimentation. Experimentation is how companies innovate and develop tomorrow’s new offerings, but you want to make sure that the experimentation strategy is a smart one. Organisations should never experiment on a grand scale in uncertain domains. Experiments need to be big enough to get valid data about their viability, but not so big that the potential failure will be devastating to the business.

“For organisations to create a culture that doesn’t blame or punish mistakes, they must embrace entrepreneurship culture,” said Ebrima Sawaneh, a Lagos-based accountant and finance blogger. “Every employee should be trained and empowered to innovate solutions without fear of being punished if they make genuine mistakes. Employees should be encouraged to report any mistake, and organisations have to clearly set what is acceptable and create a line of sight.”

Once you have a clear experiment strategy of an appropriate scale, you must make sure that everyone’s expectations are aligned.

“Everyone (high and low) must know that this is an experiment, and the nature of an experiment is we don’t yet know what will happen,” Edmondson said. “Make sure everyone is aware of the fact that this may or may not work, and in both cases, what happens will provide great data.”

Invite input. Leaders need to make it clear to people that their voice is not only expected but also welcomed.

“A lot of times, especially when they are nervous that there might be layoffs, people have the tendency to hold back,” Edmondson said. “There’s an implicit belief that no one ever got fired for silence. I think the job of leaders is to flip that around. In the complex, uncertain industry in which we operate, the people that we’re not hearing from are not of much value.”

Because the tendency for employees is to remain silent about issues, leaders need to be proactive in inviting input. It’s one thing to say, “I’d love to hear from all of you,” but it’s another to turn to a specific employee and ask, “What do you think of this situation? I’d love your thoughts.”

“After painting the situation we find ourselves in in such a way that it becomes clear that voice is necessary, leaders must be proactive in asking ‘What are you seeing out there? Is there anything not going well? What are you excited about?’” Edmondson said.

Foster psychological safety. In her latest book, Edmondson discusses why it matters for company performance that people feel psychologically safe to speak up and what leaders can do to help bring it about.

“I don’t mean to say we have to get rid of all fear,” Edmondson said. “I think it’s fine to be afraid of missing a deadline or afraid of the competition. It’s not fine to be afraid of one another or the boss.”

Edmondson explained that while managers have an outsized influence on the climate at work, any employee can make a more psychologically safe space for colleagues simply by showing up with a spirit of openness, asking questions, and truly listening.

“When you listen thoughtfully to a colleague or a subordinate, you are making a difference. You are making work life that much more safe and enriching,” she said. “In addition to asking questions, when you say things to colleagues, subordinates, or managers such as ‘I made a mistake’ or ‘That didn’t work out the way I thought,’ it sets a shining example of a learning orientation. If you model a learning orientation and interest in others, you will make that small difference, in your vicinity, in helping create a learning organisation.”

Sawaneh agrees that fostering psychological safety can help create a high-performing financial organisation.

“When people fear that they will be blamed for mistakes, it can affect their active participation and sometimes result in their being too careful,” he said. “The key resource of accounting firms are their people, and when individuals are less concerned about mistakes, they will be willing to delegate, create a learning culture, become team players, and embrace change.”

Avoid stretched goals and closed ears. While there are several examples of organisations doing a good job of creating a culture of blameless problem-solving, there are also examples of companies that have faced the consequences of squelching safe and open communication.

Wells Fargo’s recent failure, in which millions of accounts were created without consumers’ consent, is one such example. According to Edmondson, the bank’s initial cross-selling strategy wasn’t fully in touch with the reality of customers’ limited wallets, which created immense pressure to have more and more products per customer, leading employees to activities that became fraudulent and problematic in other ways. Had employees felt able to speak up, push back, and say what they were learning, the strategy might have been tweaked.

“A recipe for failure is stretch goals and closed ears,” Edmondson said. “When managers, getting the messages from on high, are saying, ‘You better deliver on this,’ the implied rest of that sentence is, or else. People will deliver, at least on the illusion of creating the desired results, so then what you will often see is the illusion of good performance rather than good performance itself.”

Develop a productive response to bad news. Psychological safety in the workplace can be shattered the second a boss erupts in anger over a reported failure.

“Leaders need to train themselves not to overreact emotionally to bad news,” Edmondson said. “They need to pause, breathe, and disrupt what might be the natural, instantaneous reaction of emotion or disapproval, and say, ‘Thank you for that clear line of sight. Now what should we do next? What are your ideas? Here are my ideas.’ It’s what I call a productive response to bad news, as opposed to a natural, in many ways normal, response to bad news.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.