Firing failures

Organizations that don’t tolerate failure not only stop their employees from learning from their mistakes but also create a risk-averse culture that fears trying anything new… Obviously, we should reward and retain people who know how to make good decisions, but most of the time, we just reward good outcomes. As long as organizations behave this way, we will be stuck with conservative, risk-avoiding behavior, and we will keep firing some of the wrong people.

Dan Ariely provides a nice potted summary of the consequences of firing people for making mistakes.


MARISSA MAYER:  There’s goal setting, we’ve also done things like quarterly calibration.  But, one of the things, it sounds funny, but when I first got there everyone said to me there’s 1,000 things you need to fix.  And it’s really overwhelming when people come up and say that to you, because you’re like, how am I going to fix 1,000 things?  And so we came up with this idea, we have a moderator tool where people can vote on things.  And we came up with it, we were like, well, there’s process in the way, there’s bureaucracy in the way, there’s just kind of stuff jamming up the system.  And people would come to us and say I know the answer.  I know the solution.  I just need someone to tell me it’s okay to do it.  And we’d be like, by all means, it’s okay.  Please do it.  And we said how can we harness that energy. And we came up with this process called PB&J, process bureaucracy and jams, where you can go and you can write up something that’s just getting in the way in the company.  It could be big like my laptop is woefully underpowered for the job that I’m being asked to do, because we end up refreshing everyone’s laptops and getting all new equipment in that way, or it could be small.  It could be like why does the gym ask us to have orientation when every hotel in the world just lets you go and stand on a treadmill without a learning session.  And so people started doing this and then other people come and vote on it.  And if something gets more than 50 yes votes we sit down with a number of E staff, executive staff, that it would be the person who oversees it, and they clean out their PB&J on a quarterly basis that has more than 50 votes. And PB&J just turned a year old in September.  It’s been completely embraced by the culture, because people just love reporting these things that were kind of in the way and kind of annoying.  And this notion that if you report it and it gets enough votes it’s going to get fixed, it’s going to get addressed really empowers people.  They finished 1,000 things in the first year.  And I joked, I told this joke at our all-team on Friday.  I said it’s so funny, because all of you came up to me and said, there’s 1,000 things to fix.  And the truth is, there are thousands of things to fix.  We’re not done.  But, I was like, wow, they fixed 1,000 things in the first year, some big, some small, but it’s really, really amazing.

PATTIE SELLERS:  And how are people held accountable for fixing those things that get more than 50 votes?

MARISSA MAYER:  Because one is there, so everyone can see, hey, this is on the top of you PB&J list.  There’s this real transparency, there’s real public accountability for it.  But, the other thing is we have a small team of five or six people that work on PB&J and so they go and meet with the teams.  But, those five or six people can’t do 1,000 things.  The real testimony and the real learning lesson here is that by empowering people in the company to fix what they knew was broken, they were like, oh, are we fixing things, are we changing things, because I’ve got some stuff I want to fix. I’ve got some stuff I want to change. They really grabbed the opportunity.

This was the final thing that struck me while I was reading Marissa Mayer’s MPW interview. There’s a lot I like about the PB&J program at Yahoo!

I like that people have an outlet to vent their frustrations and suggest solutions. I like that people can vote on the suggestions of other people. I like that there is a commitment to fixing the problems that have been identified, and that there are people within the company who are given the power to do this.

I’d love to know what kinds of processes, bureaucracy and jams were identified and how they were fixed.

Playing defense

Eric Schmitt from Google is one of my favorite mentors. And Eric would always say this very humbling thing that’s really true, which is he would say good executive confuse themselves when they convince themselves that they actually do things.  And he was like, look, it’s your job as leadership to be defense, not offense, right.  The team decides we’re running in this direction and it’s your job to clear the path, get things out of the way, get the obstacles out of the way, make it fast to make decisions, and let them run as far and fast as you possibly can.

Marissa Mayer at Fortune MPW discussing her management style at Yahoo!

As a product manager, this is one of the things I’ve been working hard at: making sure the ground is prepared and that the team has what they need to get the job done; making sure I’m not the bottleneck. Sometimes if you’re not careful, it’s far too easy to become the obstacle, rather than the one who is removing them.