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Fail early and often, my friends—bounce #2

November 23, 2007

Next month I wrap up three years of work in Thailand. Officially, I’ve served as an advisor to Government Savings Bank, a century old state enterprise with about 20 million customers. Unofficially, I’ve been loaned out to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Crown Property Bureau, the Office of Knowledge Management and Development and to a UN Advisory Group. All the work focused on the effectiveness of grassroots development programs and projects in terms of organizational learning and intellectual capital, but the work has ranged from writing speeches and books to field research to leading workshops.

The CEO of the bank has been aggressive and creative in the ways he has tried to modernize the bank’s bureaucratic culture. But regardless of talent and intention, bureaucracies evolve to preserve the system, not support the current strategy.

My first assignment was to coordinate a high-profile international conference on microfinance. Despite the incredibly high pressure, the CEO insisted that bank personnel do as much of the work as possible, despite their lack of event-production experience. When I asked him why, he acknowledged that he was pushing the staff too hard. But he saw the project as a rare opportunity. “I have to shake them up,” he said. Indeed, most of the employees involved were willing to venture much farther from their job descriptions and comfort zones than they ever would have if the conference was a part of their regular duties and performance evaluations. The frantic pace and common enemy (me) forged bonds that remain strong three years later.

The conference was judged a big success, but the real reward came during the after-action review. Bank staff revealed deep insights about their individual strengths and weaknesses and about ways in which bank culture and processes were getting in the way of how they performed their day-to-day duties. The real payoff came from the learning, self-awareness and eventually self-confidence generated by a situation in which mistakes were not only possible, but guaranteed.

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