Risk is still a toxic word across much of the social sector.
It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do. Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.
But we don’t live in those times anymore.
Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.
Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.
This week I was involved in what turned into a rather fractious Twitter thread. I’m not going to link to it here as I like to assume people’s good intentions and it is vital that we challenge one another. Plus – I’m only using this by way of example. But here’s the background:
I wrote a piece in Inside Housing condemning the stigmatisation of poor people. A couple of commentators pointed out that the organisation I work for – Bromford – were complicit in that stigmatisation in a project we began 10 years ago. To add to that I was alleged to have personally contributed to that stigmatisation by writing pieces supportive of ‘poverty porn’. And the ‘gotcha’ moment is that despite my rhetoric, Bromford have still been highlighted for service failure by ITV News.
In a nutshell. Organisation tries to do something innovative – messes up. Refines it and succeeds. Another part of an organisation messes up. Holds hands up and apologises. Attempts to put right.
Now – let’s be clear. I’m not for a minute excusing any service failure, organisations simply shouldn’t mess up in such a way. And it is absolutely correct that people like me with a platform are called out for BS. It’s how we learn. The issue is rather how we forgive organisations and accept the nuances that organisations can do good and bad things – often at the same time.
Volkswagen engineers did develop a defeat device to cheat emissions tests but my next car is probably a VW.
Some Boeing employees deliberately concealed safety results from regulators but I’m almost certain to fly in one of their planes in future.
Oxfam are facing allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying but I’m not going to cancel any donations to aid agencies just yet.
The good news for companies is that they can gain customer and stakeholder forgiveness, depending on their culture and approach to forging and enhancing relationships. Customers will forgive you if you have made consistent and genuine efforts to build trust, and ensure efficient service recovery.
However, there is growing polarisation in our public discourse. People, and companies, are either good or bad.
Brexiteers: bad. Remainers: good. Trump voters: bad. Mask wearers: good. Amazon: Bad. NHS: Good. And so on.
Of course, none of these things are so simplistic – but it suits the media landscape as it divides people into tribes and generates a lot of clicks.
But none of this is good for innovation or for transparency.
In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We’ve grown up broadcasting to people rather than engaging in meaningful conversations in public. Transparency means having these conversations and starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit.
So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. This maturing of debate will only continue though if organisations are brave enough to take part in it.
- We need to establish a new relationship with the public, and each other, where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness.
- We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it. The true test of customer service is not when things are going right – but rather when things go wrong.
- We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal.
Organisations are ultimately just a bunch of people – overwhelmingly good with a few bad. There’s no organisation on earth that is 100% ideologically pure. Organisations can do good things AND bad things at the same time. Just like people.
There’s a fallout to this line of thinking that we must be perfect —as truly improving our society becomes even more difficult work.
In reality, both ‘mostly good’ and ‘mostly bad’ organisations make mistakes, but the mostly good ones are better at learning from them.