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Leadership, Failure, Psychological Safety and Innovation

Demystifying leadership for L&D professionals and learning-focused organisations with an expert who’s done it all – including writing a book on the topic.


* Failure is neither always bad nor always good. When understood and internalized adequately, failure is an excellent tool for progress.
* Failure is an essential component in an individual’s leadership development journey.
* The larger a company is, the higher its organizational inertia to maintain its current working style. The more risk-averse this company is, the harder it is to encourage employees’ day-to-day innovation initiatives.
* Society-changing innovation more frequently comes from outliers, people, and organizations outside of a particular industry, not from established companies within that industry.
* But it is possible, even for huge organizations, to implement frameworks for micro-innovations coming from any employees.
* Two exciting reads on innovation, leadership, and effective management are Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma and Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations.
* The Great Resignation, though it did negatively affect many people worldwide, also has an upside. It’s made employees realize the importance of finding a workplace where they are respected as individuals with fresh ideas a willingness to express themselves and take risks in a psychologically safe work environment. As a result, it’s forcing employers who want to keep their workforce to revisit the opportunities and space they offer their employees to contribute.
* A workplace isn’t, however, a platform for self-expression, but a place where people go to achieve professional, company-focused goals. Employees can and should expect to have the space to be themselves, but it all happens within the context of reaching their work-related objectives.
* Psychological safety and innovation go hand in hand; a toxic work environment, where the fear of failure, criticism, or ridicule stifles new ideas, will not be conducive to innovation.
* Google’s early innovation-oriented model, the 80/20 Rule, is a good example of actively creating a specific framework to encourage innovation.

How to de-risk innovation and make space for people to contribute:

1. Psychological safety is the basis of an innovative workplace culture
2. Be specific about the innovation initiatives you want to implement
3. Allocate resources and make sure they don’t get redistributed or lost
4. Failure is a natural potential outcome and shouldn’t be punished
5. The ownership of failure falls on the shoulders of leadership


Liz Stefan 0:05
Hi everyone, you’re listening to L&D Spotlight, a podcast about learning and development brought to you by Nifty Learning. I’m your host, Liz Stefan, and together we’re here to learn about L&D.

Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of L&D spotlight. We are here again with Andrei Postolache. He is the founder of Xeriously, leadership and soft skills consultant focused on the IT industry. He also wrote a book called “Fun and Fearless Leadership”; I highly recommend that you go read it. He is also an amateur camper, a YouTuber, and, more recently, an airplane pilot. Hi, Andrei, welcome!

Andrei Postolache 0:40
Hello, everyone. So, so happy to be back here. It’s a very small plane, don’t get the wrong idea. It weighs under 300 kilograms, and it has a very small engine, so it’s the most basic way to become a pilot.

Liz Stefan 0:52
I mean, it’s an achievement, right? Because not everybody picks up this kind of skill on any given day. I would like us to talk today about psychological safety, but I want to talk about it in the context of leadership. So I want us to explore today, what’s the relationship between leadership failure culture and psychological safety in the workplace? What’s, in your opinion, the most frequent misconception about failure?

Andrei Postolache 1:19
That’s an interesting one. I think there’s many misconceptions about failure from opposite sides of the spectrum. I think the traditional way to react to failure is to always say it’s bad. So if we try something that doesn’t work, if we try to make an improvement, but it turns out that it wasn’t the right idea, that’s a failure; failure is not good. And we should come up with ways of preventing any kind of failure. And this is how companies, maybe without even realizing, become very risk-averse, because they start saying: we wasted time here, we wasted money there, trying this, it didn’t work out. So we need to come up with processes and rules and regulations, such that we only do the things we can be certain will succeed. They become very averse to failure; then they stop innovating, and they stop improving their products. And in the end, they lose. Unfortunately, it happens quite a lot. I think the misconception about failure is that it’s always bad. It’s not always bad. Then we have the other opposite of the spectrum where we have a very glorified understanding of any failure is good because you tried something and fail, fail, fail and keep failing. And we know what those people are trying to say. But let’s not exaggerate. Not every failure is good. And we shouldn’t try to fail it continuously. It’s not a pleasant feeling. Again, we should try to demystify things and try to see failure as a tool, as a way to improve, as a way to make progress, and not as a sort of slogan.

Liz Stefan 2:42
is it important for people to fail in order to become better leaders? Is this a component in everybody’s personal leadership journey?

Andrei Postolache 2:50
Yes, I think you cannot do without it. There’s two ways to think about it. The first is that every time you’re doing something that’s out of your comfort zone that’s a bit more than what you can usually do, you will fail inevitably. And by failing, I don’t mean a dramatic thing, you just, you’re going to find it difficult, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to miss on your estimates, that kind of failure, day to day kind of failure, not Hollywood movie worth kind of failure. So that kind of failure is absolutely necessary if you ever try to grow. Then there’s the emotional component of failure. And it’s the going through the failure process where you really want to do something, and you really invest emotionally in that. And not only emotionally, and it doesn’t work out, you feel a loss. Sometimes it’s a very deep, very personal, very painful kind of loss, even if it’s about a professional thing. And I think also, this is important as well, going through this emotional process of, ugh, I really believed in this, I really tried to do this, and I did my best, and it didn’t work out, and it just hurt. There’s no way around it. I think that’s also important, and a key aspect is someone’s personal growth and definitely growth as a leader.

Liz Stefan 3:57
You don’t always bring your full self to work, right? And you’re mostly driven by your specific job goals, your metrics, the things you need to achieve in order to be considered a fair contributor to the company. In my opinion, and I don’t know if I’m wrong on this or not, but just from what I’ve seen, what I’m reading, it feels like business is a fear-driven culture, the fear specifically of failure, the fear of taking a risk, and potentially really screwing up something. Which ultimately boils down to livelihood. If I don’t take any risks, and I take the safe route through this thing, then I will be considered a great business executive, a great team member, a great worker. Therefore, it’s not worth putting myself in the path of potential failure. So how can companies actually innovate? Who assumes that risk of trying something out if everybody in the company is driven by a very deep-seated need to not fail?

Andrei Postolache 4:58
I think that’s true for almost all of the large companies, and I think that’s a really difficult nut to crack. The larger the company becomes, the more companies tend to gravitate towards this kind of approach where maybe not always fear – maybe fear is the extreme scenario – but a very defensive, “let’s avoid any mistakes” kind of attitude that obviously doesn’t encourage any kind of innovation, any kind of risk-taking. And all the measurements and the KPIs are about not making a mistake. And that’s why a lot of the innovations come from small companies. And that’s why sometimes huge innovations in one industry come from outside of that industry. That’s why Apple came up with the iPhone and not the traditional mobile players. And that’s why BMW didn’t come up with the electric car first, and we have to have Tesla. And it’s not because BMW were stupid people and nobody thought about the electric car. But I can imagine a meeting where someone, an engineer from BMW, comes in, oh, we can make the electric car. Okay, how much will it cost? Well, we need to invest 5 billion in research, and then each car is going to cost 200,000 dollars. Okay, what’s the autonomy? Well, 200 kilometers? What can they charge it? Well, nowhere for now. And the reaction of the organization was that that’s a silly idea, right? We have customers that don’t want that; they want our existing cars, they’re willing to pay for them. Why build this thing? And for a company in BMWs position, that doesn’t actually make sense. But have another person coming from the outside, doesn’t have those constraints, doesn’t have an existing customer base doesn’t have anything to weigh them down, has money, has personal ambition, for whatever reason, and they say, okay, let’s do it. Let’s try it. This is the classical Innovator’s Dilemma, the book. And that’s why big companies are really horrible with innovation that goes against what they’re doing at the moment. Big companies are really good with sustaining innovation. So BMW is really good at making better BMWs; they would be really bad at making something that is very different from what they’re doing at the moment. And the solution Christensen gives in the Innovator’s Dilemma is if you’re a big company, and you want to innovate, you have to separate that team and completely isolate them from the rest of the company. Treat them like the different companies; they don’t have to follow the usual KPIs. They don’t have to deal with the usual finance teams, or HR teams, or whoever. For all practical purposes, start your own startups, so to say, and let them behave and think like startups. And that’s how you get radical innovation if you’re a big company.

Liz Stefan 7:16
Okay, but it kind of feels a little bit like cheating, in a way. Meaning, the way I understand this is the behemoth, right, is doomed to never innovate, but they could afford to take a couple of risks by proxy. So they just chunk out a nice bit of money, they send some really smart people, and they tell them, you guys go do the cool stuff, but very risky stuff. And we will continue to just slowly slog along and essentially not change too much. I know that the ultimate outcome of this is that there will be innovation. But that still is a little bit frustrating to me that companies, large companies, the larger they are, the harder it is for them to genuinely accept a higher level of risk. My question here being: will it ever be possible for large companies to freely adopt a risk-taking attitude? Or is this completely off the table forever?

Andrei Postolache 8:11
Why do we want that?

Liz Stefan 8:12
Maybe it also comes from personal experience. I used to work in a humungous company over 100,000 employees, and it felt daily like I really could not contribute because there was no platform or place for taking risks. Part of the reason why we founded Nifty is because there was no space there to actually innovate, even though arguably, you could say that a solution like ours, or any sort of more optimized solution could have genuinely brought, in the long run, of benefits to my employer. That, to me, was very frustrating because I didn’t necessarily want to leave to start a company. I just wanted whoever was in a decision-making position to think a little bit outside of the box to accept a certain level of risk or accept that we don’t have all the information right now but that there is a plan to optimize. I personally felt like I could make a contribution, and there was no place for me to make it, which was frustrating.

Andrei Postolache 9:12
The way I think about it is let’s imagine a bus that carries people. A bus is very stable, predictable, safe, always the same thing. The bus never goes too fast. The bus drives very safely, and you can rely on the bus. I think big companies are like the bus; they become a product used by many people. People sort of depend on them that their main objective becomes predictability and consistency and those kinds of things. And to some degree, I don’t think that’s bad. You don’t want a bus driver to act like a racecar driver. You don’t want them to innovate every day and go on a different route. Predictability has its value, and consistency has its value as well. I don’t think we should expect that big companies should be as flexible as small companies; they’re different things. One of them is a bus another is a race car, different things for the purposes. So to some degree, I understand, and I think it’s fine for big companies to be more established, more risk-averse, slower in how they make decisions. And individuals like you that want to take more risk and work in a different kind of environment will go to smaller companies or found their own company; people find their place. And some people want the predictability, and they’re happy with it. Some people want the craziness, and they go look for it. That’s why it’s a free market. And we can change our jobs, and we can move around; I think where it becomes a problem for the big companies is when they become so risk-averse that it’s just silly. And then they just stop innovating not only wonderful innovations, but they stopped even doing the basic innovations, you know, necessary just to keep up, and they stop delivering a good service, and they stop being relevant, and to just go out of business. It’s also a problem for them, when new technologies appear and startups come and challenge their entire business model, then they have to change a lot. And it’s difficult for them. I think, to some degree, if you think about just one company, it sounds sad. So we have this corporation and, oh, poor guys, they’re not innovating, it’s sad. But if you think about the whole market, you have everything; you have big companies, you have slow companies, you have fast companies, you have small companies, there’s a place for everything. I think things balance out in a way.

Liz Stefan 11:11
I understand what you mean, but I can’t say I fully agree. I’ll try to articulate why. The way I see it, especially in a context of hearing a lot of news about people burning out, or class action lawsuits against employers who don’t treat their employees fairly, and so on, I feel like the vast majority of people aren’t cut out to become entrepreneurs or take risks. And the vast majority of people form the workforce that works for these giant companies or for large companies in general. And I feel like a lot of people must have amazing ideas every single day about just tiny ways in which they could improve their work and the way they feel about their work. An environment that stifles innovation, just for the sake of we’re not taking a risk, because our stuff is predictable and we are the bus – I feel like there could be massive gains achieved just from tiny little interventions from, you know, from the anonymous mass of employees that could bring this innovation to the table. And that overall, society could benefit more, and progress could be achieved faster if we simply weren’t so afraid of failure. So I’m not necessarily talking about the spikes, let’s say, or these outliers who actually go and do the thing and the Elon Musk’s of the world and so on, I’m talking more about just the vast majority of people who day in, day out go to work, are amazing at what they do, but they’re just frustrated because they cannot make this tiny little change. And also, everybody who’s doing their particular bit of the work is expert in that particular area. So they should be, in my opinion, the most listened to when they want to propose some sort of improvement. Whereas in a company that’s strongly hierarchical, the assumption is that a manager is more able to make a responsible decision, not the person executing the job, which to me is paradoxical because I know how to do my job. Therefore, I am the best at knowing how to improve my job. Why won’t you let me take that risk? Why won’t you let me prove it to you?

Andrei Postolache 13:16
I think I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying. Let’s put aside the big company versus small company discussion. Let’s talk about big companies. I definitely think that every big company should try to find ways to use the ideas of their employees and encourage all these kinds of improvements. And everything you’re saying I fully agree with. I think what I’m trying to say is that even if they tried to their best, and even if they do it perfectly, it will never be as fast or as radical or as exciting as you can do it in a small company. But if we want to talk about the companies, I totally agree with that. I think the best big companies try to decentralize as much as possible. They try to empower people. When it comes to the actual risk-taking, beyond words, what does risk-taking mean? What does a mistake mean? What does innovation mean? It usually means that you find a way to encourage people to spend some time, and or some money, and or some time from their colleagues, and or some resources from the company on something that might work or might not work. And you need to accept the fact that sometimes those initiatives coming from your employees will not work. If you have a very limited mindset, you’ll say that’s waste. So let’s not do that anymore. But if you take a couple of steps back, you may realize that, while some individuals’ ideas don’t work out, the fact that we have this kind of culture mechanism where we allow people to try things overall is going to be beneficial for everything. And I think finding those kinds of mechanisms and that kind of leadership is absolutely essential. But at the same time, if you work in a big company, and you come up with an idea that requires the company to change significantly overnight, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect even a good big company to be able to do that because they just can’t, despite all the best of intentions. It’s going to be more incremental than that.

Liz Stefan 14:51
Yeah, smaller-scale changes over longer periods of time. And for the big changes, you do have to literally go outside the box and build another box.

Andrei Postolache 15:01
You have many people in the bus, right? And if all of them at the same time have radical ideas, and maybe they’re all amazing ideas, but it’s just impossible to do all the radical things all the time, at the same time, it is just not feasible. This is a bit high level, like, you know, talking about capitalism itself. But let’s go back to more down-to-earth stuff, a manager, a team, a leader, things like that. And I totally resonate with what you’re saying. And I see it a lot as well. It makes me sad to see people that sort of give up on trying, in a way, because they weren’t allowed to try. They had ideas; they tried to do things. It’s not like somebody screams at them if they try something, and it doesn’t work out, if they make a mistake. That doesn’t happen most of the time, fortunately. But somehow they’re let know that, you know, it wasn’t a good thing, you know, don’t do those kinds of things. If you keep doing those kinds of things. Maybe you want to get promoted; maybe it’s not gonna look good, just do the safe thing. Go with the flow.

Liz Stefan 15:52
Don’t rock the boat.

Andrei Postolache 15:53
I think that’s a huge waste of human potential.

Liz Stefan 15:54
Precisely, precisely, that’s what I was having in mind, yeah.

Andrei Postolache 15:58
I think the best companies know how to use that in a good way.

Liz Stefan 16:01
So a risk-averse company culture is a waste of human potential. Can we frame it like that?

Andrei Postolache 16:06
Oh, definitely. I think in the beginning, we sort of discussed a bit higher level. But just going back to day-to-day stuff, I definitely think that. You have 100,000 employees, and you pay them to work for you, and they’re voluntarily bringing more to the table in the form of ideas and initiatives. And you’re rejecting that. They’re giving you free stuff for the salary you pay them, and you’re not taking it just because it’s difficult to take it. You have to have some kind of a framework as a company to listen to those ideas and maybe prioritize them and give feedback on them; it doesn’t just happen by itself. You have to manage in a way that innovation. And because you don’t know how to do that, you’re just not going to do any of it. I think that’s sad.

Liz Stefan 16:42
The way I expressed myself was kind of dramatic, I’ll admit. But on a positive note, I feel like we are just on the verge of an awakening, let’s call it, so, somehow, this pandemic has commoditized having a job. Obviously, a lot of people were deeply, deeply hit, especially retail workers and people in hospitality; they were deeply impacted. And unfortunately, in their domains, it’s harder to expect that these minor contributions could genuinely take place, especially now since a lot of people either lost their job or so desperately need a job that they will for sure not take any risks at all. But for those industries that were less impacted or impacted in a positive way, I’m thinking here, tech companies, software companies, and so on, digital exploded, right? Online exploded, everybody wants to digitize something or everything in their suite. Software developers are the people right now who can fully work remote if they wanted to and are so free to make a decision to join a company only if they really, really feel like they can contribute that they’re resetting the standard for what they expect from their employer. And that means if I’m bringing my whole self to work, then you should expect me to screw up; I will be taking risks, I want to try to innovate. And if you don’t give me that as an employer, then I’m just gonna find someone else because it’s that easy for me. Right now, we’re talking more and more about individuals consciously moving towards jobs, where they feel they matter, where they feel comfortable to actually take a risk or try to suggest innovation or be vulnerable and be themselves and not just go to work at nine and come home at five. These people are paving the way for more and more industries to adopt the same behavior, coming from the employees like a grassroots movement and forcing employers to rethink how much they value their employees. Do they value them as just resources? Or do they value them as actual individual contributors that do have a voice and might sometimes screw up at work for the sake of making an improvement?

Andrei Postolache 18:49
It’s also a supply and demand thing; if there’s way more jobs than people that are qualified for those jobs, like in the example of software developers, and at the same time, removing the location constraint, the choice is so much wider. Now, clearly, there’s more demand and supply, the supply is going to have the upper negotiating position, and negotiating position will mean anything: they’re paid very well; they’re offered a lot of perks. And they get to choose how the job looks and how they want to behave and how they want to be treated and so on. And I think that’s fine. I love that. I also think that there’s been so much unnecessary focus in the past in companies to sort of having this uniform kind of thing. Like we all look in a certain way we will, we will behave, we go to meetings in a certain way. I think that’s not necessary anymore at all. And I think companies can deal with individuals being more different. I also see the other side of the coin. Sometimes I see some of the people being too selfish. It’s all about this is me, and this is what I want, and this is okay. But if you work with a company, your job is not to be yourself. Your job is to produce value while being yourself. A job is not just a place to express your personality. It’s not Instagram; it’s not somewhere where it just, oh, another opportunity to be myself? Let me be myself. Yeah, it’s good to be yourself, obviously, but we’re a team, let’s try to do something together, you know, we’re trying to achieve something at the end of the day. So I think that’s also a balance. I think most people understand that. But I’ve also seen entitled people that, if the one time they didn’t get to be themselves, wherever that is, like, ah, this is not the job for me. Okay, this is not your stage, right? It’s not just a way to manifest your personality. That’s not what we’re here. We’re here to build something; we’re here to do something; feel free to be yourself, feel free to act naturally, but we’re here to build something; I think you need to balance both things.

Liz Stefan 20:29
I feel like I’ve taken this conversation off course a little bit. In the context of speaking about people being allowed to be themselves. This all boils down to psychological safety in the workplace, and it’s becoming more and more a thing. First of all, people are talking about this, right? We’re talking about this; I’ve read articles from prominent leaders in the HR space, who are for the first time talking about this openly. For some business leaders, it’s kind of weird; they see this concept of psychological safety in the workplace as a threat. Oh, my god, now I have to be a therapist for my employees? I actually have to accommodate for everybody’s feelings? Can’t they just work? And can’t we just focus on our metrics and go ahead with that? And psychological safety and innovation are very intimately connected. Because you don’t feel comfortable potentially taking a risk if you think, ah, what are my coworkers going to think? What’s my boss going to think? I don’t want to risk being the fool, or I don’t want to risk my job because it’s my livelihood. So I will for sure not try to innovate; I’ll just keep my head down and push ahead.

Andrei Postolache 21:33
I totally agree with that. And I think that’s a wrong way to understand it; psychological safety is not about being a therapist for your employees; it’s about giving them that space to try things without the fear of being ridiculed, without the fear of being punished. And it’s not even formal punishment; it’s not like the manager is going to come and say, I’m diminishing your salary. But it’s simple things. Like if you try something, and it doesn’t work, in the next team meeting, and they make a couple of jokes about you, and the team leader sort of smiles a little bit as well. And nobody wants to be mean; they’re not sort of executing you, but definitely, it’s a very strong message that I shouldn’t be doing this, maybe just stay safe. And if you want people that only do what you tell them to do, yeah, that’s what they’ll do. But if you want them to improve things, if you want them to come up with new ways of doing things, if you want them to grow your company and not just execute, then you need to give them that space to think and to behave like that. Psychological safety, I think, is really important for that. I think the traditional management perspective is: you’ve got to be emotionally strong enough to move past these roadblocks. So even if people sort of laugh about you, people sort of discourage you, give you all the bad feedback, you’re strong, and you go through it, and at the end, you will succeed. And that’s true, but only for a small percentage of people. And there’s many other people that cannot do that, or will not do that, but would have good ideas, if only you make it easier for them to contribute.

Liz Stefan 22:53
What’s the healthy approach to de-risking innovation in a company? How do you practically put that in place, especially in a culture where you probably don’t feel psychologically safe? How can a company genuinely look at itself and take XYZ actions to become a healthier environment for innovation? How do companies do that?

Andrei Postolache 23:13
I think it has to be specific. So let’s think about that example, with Google’s 20%. Time, I don’t think they do it anymore. I think it changed a lot. But back in the day, it was very radical, the idea that every Google employee has 20% of their time, one day a week, where they can do whatever they want. So they don’t have to work on their normal project. They don’t have to work on their normal business KPIs. They just do whatever they want, and pluses and minuses, whatever. But I think that is a good example of how to make innovation possible because you have to make it very specific. If you’re the CEO of the company, and you go to your employees and say, I encourage innovation, I encourage you to take chances, that’s great; you should do that. But it’s not enough; you have to come up with an actual framework. So other things I’ve seen in companies is we have a budget for innovation. And actually, it’s like a contest. So you can submit your idea here, here’s like a simple template of a business case; fill that in, tell us what you want to do, an internal improvement project of some sort, submit it there. And once a year, twice a year, there’s a decision and involve many people in that decision, maybe not just a few managers. And we actually invest some money and some time into funding these internal ideas. And if your idea wins, then you actually get to maybe have a small team, have a little budget, and actually do it. And I think these kinds of things are a good way to do it. You need the general message, you need the general idea, but come up with something specific as well. And hand in hand, both things, I think, work the best.

Liz Stefan 24:32
Let’s assume this happens. The CEO sends the right message, there are actions, and there’s a framework built, and people actually start running these experiments. What if some of them fail? Who’s responsible? What if the company actually incurs damage from these experiments? Who’s the – I don’t want to say the scapegoat because I don’t think we should frame it in terms of blame – but in case of failure, there could be financial impact, other types of impact. Who’s responsible, who bears that burden in order to not prevent innovation to continue?

Andrei Postolache 25:04
The CEO. It’s nobody else’s fault. And it’s nobody’s fault. But if I understand your question, I think we’re trying to say that if this has a chance to succeed, then we must not have a blame culture. Nobody’s at fault. These things we try, we accept the fact that 0% of them may work, or 50% of them may work or 20%, or 90%. We don’t know. And yeah, we can have a conversation about why did 0% of them work, as a sort of retrospective, but that’s not about blaming anyone; that’s about understanding how things work. So it has to be like that. And there’s this great book that’s called Reinventing Organizations, and basically, it’s a study of companies that work in these kinds of very decentralized ways, with minimal management, with a lot of empowerment from everyone to make decisions in their teams and change the way they work and do all these things we’re talking about here. And the author studied many organizations, including some very large organizations with thousands and tens of thousands of employees, and some of them working in sort of very traditional industries, not just, you know, software or things like that, where you expect this to be more common. And he sort of tried to understand what do these companies have in common? How do they manage to work in this way, where they encourage everyone to make decisions and take initiatives and take chances, while at the same time being profitable and being successful? He crystallized everything into a couple of key ideas; the culture of this company was anyone can do anything in a way, as long as you consult the people that will be impacted by your decision, right? Consult, not necessarily agree with them, just talk to them. So going back to our innovation idea, if you’re anyone, a team member in any team, you have an idea, you want to change something in the way you work, you want to change something in the product, anything, you’re thinking: if I were to do this, who would be impacted from my colleagues? Let me talk to them. Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. What do you think? You don’t have to actually do what they tell you; you don’t have to have unanimity. But just honestly take into account what they’re saying, try to put it together, make the best decision you can and do it. And as long as you consult, you should be able to do pretty much everything. That’s how I see it.

Liz Stefan 26:57
And one consequence of this act of consulting is also getting the buy-in of those impacted, both in accepting that there’s a component of risk and also accepting that there could be an outcome of failure. So it’s not like you’re taking people by surprise with this wild idea that you had, but rather, everybody’s in agreement that this is a potential outcome. Therefore, the failure itself won’t be perceived as a failure, but more as we really tried.

Andrei Postolache 27:24
They even went further than that. He said you don’t even need their buy-in; you just need to consult them. Let’s take a very simple example. There’s a framework we use in our software development team. And I want to change that framework because I think I can make it better. That framework is used by three other teams; before I change it, I go and talk to those other teams. And I tell them, I’m thinking about making this change. What do you think? I don’t have to have their agreement; I just need to consult them and balance it out. Maybe one of the teams agrees, one of the teams doesn’t agree, but it’s not, you know, against it, and another team is somewhere in the middle; I can still do it, I can take that chance. That’s fine. I don’t have to have agreement. And what happens when everybody does this – because if you imagine just one person does this, right, then that person is the outlier, they’re crazy; everybody looks at them like you’re crazy – but if that’s how the company works, then many people are going to do these kinds of things. And it becomes the normal way. And suddenly, we encourage innovation, and we have psychological safety. And we have risk-taking and all those kinds of things.

Liz Stefan 28:21
I feel the need to also have the buy-in of the people. I mean consulting just for the sake of extracting information to inform your decision, I feel like it’s not good enough.

Andrei Postolache 28:30
It’s not just for the sake of extracting information; you’re actually taking it into account. And sometimes you may decide not to do it, of course. But let’s take an example. This software framework thing, maybe it’s like a component that you’re developing that’s used by many teams inside your company, ten teams, twenty teams. And you’re thinking about making an update to that, and if you want buy-in from 20 teams, you’re never going to do anything. It’s almost impossible to have not twenty, ten people agreeing on anything. Those are like your internal customers; they use your component. And you go to say, okay, we want to make this change, I know it’s gonna be a little bit of a hassle for you guys because you also have to update the way how you use it, we’re gonna help you, but we want to make this change for whatever reasons because we want to innovate, we want to, you know, make things better. If 20 of them disagree, maybe you shouldn’t do it, right? Or 18 of them, or 19 of them. But in reality, it’s going to be something like, you know, five of them are going to be yeah, that’s awesome, five of them are gonna be whatever, five of them are going to be eh, and three of them are going to be very against it, something like that. So what do you do? You cannot have consensus; you’d never do anything. Consensus is death business-wise. What do you do? So you make sure you take into account what the three that were very against it said. Maybe you adjust a little bit the details of how you’re going to do it to mitigate their worries. Maybe you make a mental note, okay, I’m going to pay particular close attention to them. I’m going to help them personally implement it when it comes out. You take it into account, but you still have to do it.

Liz Stefan 29:51
I want to say that you should be testing it out first, in any case. You don’t just consult, make a decision and then implement throughout the company. You probably will be running an experiment initially, to see if your assumptions, informed by consulting with your peers, actually make sense. Maybe even some of the feedback that you initially didn’t take into account turns out to be very sensible. And then, as you refine your idea, you probably will get to a point where it’s beneficial for everybody or for most of your peers, right?

Andrei Postolache 30:19
I don’t think so.

Liz Stefan 30:19
No? Okay.

Andrei Postolache 30:20
I agree with you that you should test things and so on. But I don’t think you will frequently end up in a place where it’s welcomed by everyone. Because, unlike your situation, you put a product on the market, your clients select themselves, the people that come to you are the people that need what you have to offer. Inside the company, you don’t choose your clients and your clients don’t choose you. They’re fixed, those people have to use your framework, and you have to do it for them. Because of that, I think it’s almost impossible to get this kind of product-market fit to the same degree that you get as a startup, because you don’t get to choose your clients. And you should take things into account and you should consider everyone’s opinion, but I think it’s it’s almost impossible to get everyone on board with anything when you have more than a handful of people. And at some point decisions should not be made by consensus. I think consensus is a horrible thing. I think listening to people is great, considering everyone’s opinion is great. Respecting everyone’s great, but consensus as in we have to keep talking until we have 100% agreement, I think it’s the worst thing you can do in a business.

Liz Stefan 31:20
It’s not a trial, right?

Andrei Postolache 31:21
It just slows everything down and it’s risk-averse, right, it becomes this way to kill any initiative; decision by committee. Unless we all like it, it doesn’t happen; and nothing will happen.

Liz Stefan 31:31
Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. That’s interesting. Let’s try to summarize a little bit the outcomes of this conversation. So failure is misunderstood. It’s perceived as a negative thing, whereas it can actually lead to progress, if it’s applied in a, let’s say, healthy manner.

Andrei Postolache 31:48
Obviously, I agree with that.

Liz Stefan 31:49
In order to foster innovation, you should create a safe place for your employees. So you need psychological safety, and it needs to be built into the company culture, otherwise, people are going to be reluctant to actually contribute. Obviously, the workplace isn’t, as you were saying, Instagram, right? You don’t come to work to express yourself, you come to work because you have a job to do. But you should have the space to actually make a contribution. And to the extent that it stays within professional boundaries, you do get to express yourself, but only if the environment allows you to. And in order to create that kind of environment, then you can put in place specific actions for innovation. So you allocate a budget, you allocate time for people out of their workweek to just think about ways to improve stuff, then once decisions are made that these innovations can be implemented, in case there is failure, it’s implied that it’s not a problem. And the CEO, the leadership team accepts that this is a potential outcome and doesn’t punish people for having failed.

Andrei Postolache 32:52
I don’t even think it’s a failure. It’s like an experiment, you’re trying something out. The outcome is to learn something, if it doesn’t work that way, we’ve learned it doesn’t work that way. If it works, we know it works and we keep pushing in that direction. So the way I see a business or any team, let’s imagine you, me and several other friends, we get together and we go hiking and camping in the mountains, we’re doing something together. That’s a business, that’s a team. And obviously, you should be yourself and I should be myself, clearly. I’m not going to expect you to behave in a certain way to make me happy, and you’re not going to expect me to behave in a certain way to make you happy. So we should all be comfortable to be ourselves. At the same time, we’re there together for something. I’m not going to stop everyone from our hike, just because I feel like I want to take pictures for three hours somewhere. And when people tell me, you know, we need to keep moving, I’m just gonna react like, yeah, you’re not allowing me to be myself. That’s silly, right? We’re not there for that. So there’s a balance; I was talking about people that hopefully are reasonable and have an objective, but we achieve that objective while being comfortable in our own skins. I think that’s what we should all aim for.

Liz Stefan 33:51
And it’s perfectly feasible for companies to accept a level of risk if they also expect people to innovate.

Andrei Postolache 33:59
I think they have to do that. And I think it’s a false problem. Because if you set aside a budget for innovation, or if you start counting the quote-unquote failures, it’s going to look like we spend so much money on this thing; well, you lose money every day on all kinds of stupid things. And you waste effort every day from your employees; it’s just not visible because you hide under that pretend perfection of your process. So you have a lot of inefficiencies anyway; spend a little bit, invest a little bit in this and it’s going to do wonders for your business and for your people. It’s going to make them happier, it’s going to be a better place to work.

Liz Stefan 34:30
It’s going to prevent another Great Resignation. Well, thank you for that; this has been very insightful. I always welcome this type of conversation. So thank you for your time today, Andrei, and looking forward to the next episode.

Andrei Postolache 34:42
Likewise, thanks a bunch and see you next time.

Liz Stefan 34:50
Thank you so much for being with us today. This has been another episode of L&D Spotlight. If you’d like to get in touch and join the conversation, write to me at Liz[at] or connect with me on LinkedIn at Liz Stefan. Have a productive week, everyone!

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We're joined by Andrei Postolache, founder at Xeriously, leadership & soft skills consultant, and author of Fun & Fearless Leadership. Our conversations explore the intricacies of being a good leader in a complex working environment, the discipline and skillset required to put together and lead high performing teams and how that ties into L&D initiatives in the organisation.

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