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How to Build a Fail-Fast Culture

There’s a lot of talk these days about how failure is not just fine but fantastic.

Tech companies famously tout “fail fast”-style mantras. One of Facebook’s guiding principles is “Done is better than perfect.” Many start-up founders are known for having built companies that failed before finding long-term success.

The philosophy of encouraging mistakes and quickly learning from them complements the design-thinking movement. In this way of thinking, you’re encouraged to launch quickly, shipping imperfect product and iterating based on customer feedback.

But what role can this approach play in a slow-moving, large company? After all, many of the small start-ups that encourage fast failure will grow quickly, and maintaining that kind of culture as it scales is tricky. How do you treat not-quite-perfect, disappointing or outright failed ideas and projects as acceptable among hundreds or thousands of employees?

Here are a few guiding principles for instilling an innovative, fail-fast philosophy in a larger organization.

Set up mini innovation groups: I worked with an organization that set up small teams across the company with the mandate to drive innovations in the everyday routines of work. The teams discuss new processes, test their ideas and then present a summary of improvement initiatives. They share ways to extend their concept, and the teams look at other potential business implications. A review board makes the final approvals based on the portfolio and suggests ways to make wider impact. It’s an organized, civilized and, yet, wholly innovative way of working in a bigger company. And if the teams’  ideas fail? Well, at least they were given permission to try.

Focus on feedback year-round: If you were working on a new project and it failed to launch or didn’t perform well in a test, would you want to hear about what you could’ve done better from your manager a year later? Real-time development happens throughout the work days and weeks– not during an annual performance review – and allows you to constantly and more quickly improve. But this is a change you should make as part of a bigger talent innovation strategy in performance management – it can’t be executed effectively alone.

Recruit, promote and succession-plan differently: To encourage a fail-fast mentality, we must reimagine what we consider successful. Along with rethinking annual performance reviews, consider what guidance and framework you use to define a productive employee. Can you reward the team that boldly pushed new ideas, even if the ideas didn’t come to fruition? Is a top performer one who differentiated your brand in the marketplace with a new angle, even if it didn’t have the same broad reach as last year’s campaign? Adhere to what principles your organization’s strategy prioritizes, but ensure you’re not inadvertently punishing people who take smart risks.

Follow basic culture evolution lessons: Strategy+business magazine’s article “Culture and the Chief Executive” shared how culture can evolve by following four tenets, and they’ll of course apply here, too.  The basic steps to remember:

  • Demonstrate positive urgency by focusing on your company’s aspirations — its unfulfilled potential — rather than on any impending crisis.
  • Pick a critical few behaviors that exemplify the best of your company and culture that you want everyone to adopt. Set an example by visibly adopting these behaviors yourself.
  • Balance your appeals to the company to include both rational and emotional cues.
  • Make the change sustainable by maintaining vigilance on the few critical elements that you have established as important.

Know your limitations: Certain companies, organizations within an enterprise and missions can more easily afford to push the envelope and experiment than others. While inspiration can come from the tech world, there are limits to how far your organization can go. The key is to understand, challenge and ultimately work within these limits to foster a culture of innovation. Even in risk-averse circumstances, some businesses exercise the fail-fast philosophy on non-mission-critical projects that won’t harm the business, brand or customers if they don’t pan out. This approach can reinforce your culture and can empower and engage the team. It can even lead to new value if the idea can spark other future, more achievable initiatives.

It’s difficult to create a work world balance where innovation and creativity can quickly become executable projects or products in the market while also staying within the complex boundaries of a large organization — especially one that’s regulated.

But a learning culture that embraces fresh ideas, even those that could fail, is increasingly essential. More than ever, our clients ask PwC to help them stay competitive and innovative while smaller organizations threaten their growth. And, more than ever, big businesses risk losing talent to these companies, too.

To keep up, you’ve got to re-up. There’s little progress to be made by doing things the way you’ve done them in the past few years. If you consider how your company’s culture could better embrace risk and failed ideas, you’ll be better positioned to deal with more unpredictability and to grow in the future.

The Rise of Panopticon Regulation?

A radical shift is underway in how insurance markets are going to be regulated in the UK. The shift will transform the relationship between insurers, regulators and the public.

“Big data” promises a more personalized, customer-centric way of doing business. Yet, as insurers gain access to unprecedented levels of information about the lives of consumers, there could be problems with privacy.

This ability to track everyday lives begins to resemble an idea put forward by the 18th century reformer Jeremy Bentham. He envisaged a prison designed in the form of a ring, with a central tower from which prisoners could be monitored at all times, but in which those monitoring remained unseen. He called it the Panopticon. The idea underpinning Bentham’s design was that the monitoring would be so constant, yet so unknowing, that the prisoners would adopt more conforming behaviors.

Let’s think of a modern day panopticon, the ring filled not with prisoners but with millions of consumers, and a central tower full of firms gathering data about us. Data about our everyday activities would stream into that central tower, to be turned by the firms there into personalized products and services. A “digital panopticon.”

Insurers are one such class of firm taking up position in that central tower. Underwriting and claims people would analyze all that consumer data, looking for patterns of behavior that signal a good or bad risk, an honest or dishonest claimant.

Then there’s the UK regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), talking about a new era of regulation based on a combination of data, technology and behavioral science. The FCA illustrated this new era in a recent review of the pay-day loan sector, drawing in vast amounts of loan data from firms and analyzing it to produce new rules on lending and servicing practice.

Insurance could be next on the FCA’s list. Might the FCA start drawing in vast amounts of insurer data to analyze it for signs of consumer detriment? If so, does this mean the regulator is now constructing an observation tower of its own inside that “digital panopticon,” one that sits within the insurance market’s own tower? Are we seeing the emergence of “panoptic regulation”?

Such a “tower within a tower” could be a game-changing move. It could bring about a radical change in market attitudes toward ethics, fairness and culture. After all, the key idea behind the panopticon was for it to bring out better, more universal behavior, on the basis that what you were doing at any time might be under observation. Is the real future of regulation then simply the power derived from being in that innermost tower, using data to watch over a firm that could be yours, to watch over a person who could be you?

And if firms use predictive analytics to anticipate policyholder behavior, then could the regulator use its own predictive analytics to identify emerging patterns of misconduct? A regulator able to address misconduct before it became widespread would be powerful as well as controversial.

This could bring about a revolution in trust, for might consumer concerns about their personal data fall away, knowing that regulators are able to see everything insurers are doing with it?

The original panopticon proved too radical for the time and was never built. Yet something very similar is taking shape in the digital insurance market. The key question is: Is the insurance market and its regulators ready for the consequences that will flow from this?

To explore the concept of panoptic regulation in more detail, read this paper I wrote for the Chartered Insurance Institute earlier this year.

IMR Practices May Be Legal, Yet…

There is one element of human behavior that is not very well appreciated by most people — for the most part, socialized humans follow the law.

However, people acting completely rationally will also take advantage of the law. They will not break the law, but nearly all of us will push the boundaries to accomplish our missions.

We do this every day driving our cars. We exceed the speed limit all over the place — maybe not by much; as we know, police officers are rather tolerant of someone going five miles per hour over the limit and much less tolerant of someone going ten over.

Part of this behavior stems from the fact that, with very little exception, laws, rules and regulations are restrictive — they tell us what we can’t do but don’t tell us what we can do. For the most part, this is because it is really very hard to determine what will be allowed — it’s much easier to describe what won’t be allowed.

When we combine law-abiding people who want to get their job done along with restrictive laws, we end up with what are commonly known as loopholes.

Loopholes exist because someone who needs to get something accomplished found a way to do so regardless of some proscription.

Take California’s independent medical review (IMR). IMR was conceived to expedite medical decisions outside of the court system. (Whether this mission is accomplished is the subject of much debate — and is not the subject of this post.) But IMR has produced an unintended consequence that arises from people doing their jobs, and doing the job well, within the constricts of the law.

There is a faction of the workers’ compensation industry whose job is to minimize ultimate claims costs. These are good, law-abiding, citizens. They follow the law … carefully and considerately.

What they have discovered is that an IMR denial of treatment is a final determination, and a final denial of treatment within the workers’ compensation context means that item can be removed from consideration when establishing a Medicare Set-Aside trust. In other words, something that a workers’ compensation payer would have been liable for before IMR is no longer a continuing liability to either the injured worker or to the federal government.

This also means that the cost of treatment is shifted from worker’s comp to Medicare.

Although this may be perfectly legal, and certainly even prudent from the workers’ compensation payer’s viewpoint, my bet is that this was not intended by the authors of SB 863, nor any other medical treatment limitation law in any other state.

The unintended consequence challenges the future of workers’ compensation. The purpose of workers’ compensation, as we have said time and time again, is to make it affordable for an employer to take care of injured workers.

We all get that. But I think we forget a fundamental concept: The obligation is the employer’s.

We don’t fulfill this mission when we shift the responsibility to someone else, such as the federal government via Medicare or Social Security.

Doing so, regardless of legality, invites scrutiny. And when there’s enough scrutiny there’s inquisition. And when there’s enough inquisition, there’s interference.

We’re on the cusp of that now. The public image of workers’ compensation couldn’t be lower. There are many talking about skimpy benefits, of wrongfully denied medical treatment, of passing the buck and of otherwise shirking responsibility.

These are acts that are, for the most part, the product of people working within the law to accomplish their missions and jobs without regard or even an idea of negative consequences.

This is now playing out with California IMR.

California IMR has been under attack since inception. The California Third District Court of Appeals, in Ramirez v. WCAB (SCIF), No. C078440, has granted review to test its constitutionality. Ramirez joins a case already pending at the 1st DCA, Stevens v. WCAB (Outspoken Entertainment), No. A143043, which also seeks to have IMR declared invalid. The basis of these cases is that fundamental rights of due process are violated because there is no legal review process.

Perhaps those challenging IMR have an argument. And just because someone is acting within the bounds of the law doesn’t make that action right, correct or good policy.

When OSHA released its recapitulation of prior research on the adequacy of workers’ compensation, it was seen by many as overreaching based on faulty research. Maybe, but this industry should be fearful, because OSHA’s report is, in reality, the dog barking because someone is intruding on its property and territory. It may not be trespassing, and there may be invitation, but the dog doesn’t know that and doesn’t care.

Eventually, the dog will bite. The states won’t like that at all.

The Dangers of Public Segmentations

Recently, it seems that developing public segmentations of your customers or citizens and then sharing it for all to see is becoming fashionable.

In part, this is to be applauded and welcomed.,/p>

The trend highlights a key tool within the customer insight toolkit, encourages greater focus on understanding people and embraces the need for greater transparency. However, there is also an inherent risk, that readers fail to understand the purpose, design and limitations of such segmentations and thus unwittingly apply them where they will not help.

This reminds me of a time many years ago when psychometric segmentations were very popular in business circles. Myers Briggs (MBTI) and many other profiles were enthusiastically applied and team members categorized into their “type.” Sadly, all too often, this perception about some important differences between team members was filed away following the team-building exercise and never used again. Screening interview candidates via psychometric segments was also “flavor of the month” at one stage, although I hear it being much more rarely used now (or only as part of a mix of “facts” to be considered).

Perhaps part of the problem can be a misunderstanding of the role of segmentation. As posted previously, segmentation is just one of a number of statistical tools available, and each segmentation will be designed to achieve a particular purpose. For this reason, more than one segmentation of customers may be entirely appropriate and insightful for a business that is able to handle such complexity (though most business leaders dislike this idea).

But let’s return to reviewing some of those recently published public segmentations. The first one I want to consider is the Consumer Spotlight segmentation published by the FCA.

While this appears a useful segmentation to help the FCA understand and focus on more vulnerable segmentation with regard to financial understanding or access, it is also important to recognize its limitations. A 10-segment model will only ever be appropriate for understand macro attitudes and behaviors. My own experience of segmenting consumers within different product markets tells me that both attitudes and behaviors can vary widely once you drill down to specific needs or products. So, it’s important to realize that this segmentation has been designed to focus on dimensions like vulnerability, detriment and financial risk. Thus it is most relevant for the FCA itself, to help target communications.

A second example is a commercial business taking such a public approach to sharing a segmentation. It is the Centre for the Modern Family segmentation funded by Scottish Widows.

This is another interesting segmentation, as it seeks to highlight and track changing social attitudes, family structures and pressures on modern families of many different types. However, once again it is important to realize the limitations of this survey. It is an attitudinal segmentation, constructed from a combination of “qual and quant” survey results, interpreted by an expert panel drawn from academia, social care and commerce. As such, this is a subjective perspective evidenced by self-reported attitudes and behaviors. Although such an understanding can be very rich, the inability to overlay this segmentation onto customer databases means that actual behavior cannot be verified or targeted actions or communications executed (often a drawback of attitudinal segments).

My final example is from the UK government. There are two I could have chosen here, as they have also recently published a segmentation on “climate change and transport choices,” but I’ve chosen to highlight the segmentation exercise published in regard to the problem of digital exclusion.

Once again, it’s encouraging to see this segmentation exercise being undertaken and the transparency regarding approach and progress. However, it does also appear to run the risk of a number of other “hybrid segmentations.” That is the risk that certain differences highlighted in various research studies or other sources are “cherry picked” to construct a patchwork quilt of apparently rich understanding that is not evidenced on a consistent basis. This can be seen in the infographic embedded in the above article. Even constructing a behavioral/demographic framework for a segmentation on that basis and then consistently surveying each segment runs the risk of masking important differences because of the averaging effect of artificially constructed segments. It will be interesting to see how government advisers and agencies avoid those risks.

I hope you found that interesting and are also engaged with the level of focus on segmentation in today’s government and media. If these are approached carefully and interpreted appropriately, they should be another driver of greater influence and seniority for customer insight leaders. That is our cause celebre.

How to Spot and Avoid Your Next Crisis

Q: Can I identify my organization’s next crisis? If so, how?

A: Jim Satterfield– Undoubtedly, yes. Knowing what the next crisis might be is a way to think about planning and information. There are warning signs and indicators when we discuss human behavior. Understanding behaviors of concern and identifying them earlier in the process is imperative. It provides an idea of the frequency and severity of a situation.

If we can see those indicators, if we can identify those behaviors, then we can intervene before they become a problem. Sometimes, they are business or financial indicators; sometimes, it’s just human behavior.

On 9/11, I was EVP and chief operating officer of a public technology firm with employees in the States and around the world. When the first plane hit the first tower, we thought it could have been an accident. When the second plane hit the second tower, clearly not an accident. We called a meeting in our boardroom and, while sitting around the table, decided it was a day unlike any that we’ve ever seen.

Our management team decided it would be better to let everybody go home. I turned to our HR director and said, “Could you send a global email out to everybody in the company telling them they could just go home”? She went back to her desk, and she typed this message: “If you want to live, leave.”

The intended message was to be: “If you want to leave, leave.” Those are two entirely different messages. “If you want to live, leave.” “If you want to leave, leave.”

Thinking about your messages when you’re not under stress is very, very critical, and planning makes a difference.

Q: I already have a detailed and updated copy of our organization’s crisis plan. Do I need to have a digital copy, as well?

A: Jim Satterfield– Unless you’re planning to add a psychic on your crisis management team, it’s not going to do you any good to have an outdated or out-of-reach plan. Keeping your plans current and available is crucial. If you can’t get access to the right information at the right time, it’s not going to do you any good. “Oh, the plan’s back in the office, and I’m at home.”

Speed is quality. Getting the right answers to the right people at the right time becomes a critical element in every crisis.

Q: What should my organization’s key messages be to each stakeholder group for vulnerabilities and threats?

A: Jim Satterfield– What we’re going to say internally will be different than what we’ll say externally. Think about who your stakeholders are. If you’re in a business that’s heavily regulated, you have regulators as a stakeholder group. You have employees and investors, as well. If a school, you have parents, students and possibly church affiliation. You have various elements to be dealt with, and that makes a difference in approach.

Q: What resource can help with quick decision-making?

A: Jim Satterfield– What you do is list in one column things that could happen, things that could damage:

  • The facility
  • The employees
  • The data
  • The brand
  • The reputation

Across two more columns, we indicate what would qualify as a minor event and what is considered a crisis. You then include descriptive terms and circulate it to the entire company.

Immediately, when something comes up, refer to the matrix. If an employee is injured, but did not receive emergency treatment, it remains a minor event. If the employee had to have some medical attention, it rises to the next level. If an employee dies, that’s crisis. It’s at the highest level that management would want to be involved, so creating an event activation matrix is the fastest way to get that quick response with everyone on the same page at the same time.

Q: What are common mistakes people have made during a crisis?

A: Jim Satterfield– These are the five failures that we see over and over and over again in a disaster or crisis:

  • Failure to control critical supply chains
  • Failure to train employees for both work and home
  • Failure to identify and monitor all threats and risks
  • Failure to conduct exercises and update plan
  • Failure to develop crisis communications plans
  • About 70% of employees don’t know what they’re supposed to do in a disaster or a crisis. In addition, 95% don’t have a disaster plan at home. If something happens in your area, and you think your family is at risk, family wins. That’s why people don’t show up in a crisis, because they’re concerned about their family.

    We work on these failures through our Predict/Plan/Perform process. First, identify groups. Then conduct exercises and establish how you’re going to monitor and communicate. When you think about your individual plans, think about them in light of these groups. You need to build preparation in from all of these groups that could ultimately be a problem within the organization.

    Q: Are school students classified under workplace violence?

    A: Jim Satterfield– Yes, because it’s a workplace. The school is a workplace, yes.

    Q: Prevention is rare in organizations that have small staffs. Have you found organizations are willing to assign staff to conduct social media monitoring on their time?

    A: Jim Satterfield– They can, or you can use an outside service that will do it for you. This route is much more cost-effective. Why? Because that’s the specialist’s full-time job.

    Whatever your full-time job is, you’re good at that job. If you only do something every now and then, you’re not going to be as good, and you may miss an important signal or piece of information.

    We are finding organizations — both large and small — are conducting monitoring as a preventative measure, and we conduct such intelligence gathering for a number of clients.