A story of risking failure to achieve positive change

Interviews with Sean Ballard, ATB Financial and

Ashley Good, Fail Forward 

Fail Forward is a national organization dedicated to sparking new kinds of conversations about the value of failure for enhancing impact. Ashley Good points out that, “At first, it was important to just get people to even talk about failure! Now, the discourse is out there but the new, big question is how to do it? How do organizations go about implementing action that takes risks and values failure?” 

Fail Forward is interested in organizations like ATB Financial. A crown corporation, ATB has grown to be the largest Alberta-based financial institution.  Sean Ballard is part of an internal unit called Emerge—a unit that exists to explore big trends on the horizon, make meaning of identified patterns, and experiment with new ideas that may (or may not) be worth investing in. Take, for example, the trend towards crowd funding: recently, Sean and his team at ATB created and tested a rewards platform for “main street businesses” that was subsequently launched through their small business group as www.AlbertaBoostR.ca. Building on what they learned from that, they are now creating and testing a crowd lending initiative where the crowd becomes part of the approval and funding, and ATB matches the funds (http://www.albertacrowdlenders.ca/). Now an opportunity to further test the model through partnering with SeedUps Canada has recently emerged; the first step was just announced! http://bit.ly/213JcI2

How are they achieving this kind of impact?

Responding to the broader context: The context is changing fast for this industry; the financial industry is being turned on its head. ATB has fully accepted that experimenting and learning quickly to do things in different ways is not a choice but a requirement in order to remain relevant and competitive; foresight is critical.

Real world experimentation: Experimenting is not a theoretical endeavor for ATB: “We want to make things real through designing and then testing ideas out in the real world, in real time, with real people.” ATB experiments with prototypes as a way to help them understand trends, activities, populations, and as a creative communication tool. Their approach to experimentation: 1) start small (enough); 2) risk early; and, 3) move fast.

Staging risk: Sean talks about learning to manage risk in a stage appropriate manner. Risk is multi-faceted and does not always look or feel the same. In early stages of exploration, there seems to be a lesser degree of risk required. As the story unfolds, the problem is clearly identified and the range of ideas emerge for consideration; thinking is risky but not as much as action. Next stages involve rolling out an execution plan, and ATB enters into these stages, consciously armed with learning and experience, moving through each part of the path, with an associated level of risk—allowing things like what to risk, what degree of risk, and for how long to risk, to continually shift in response to each step along the way.

Distributed leadership: The CEO and Board of Directors are supportive and believe that this way of thinking and acting is critically important.  The organizational leadership is deliberately and transparently moving to embrace risk. Sean believes that the individual leaders have the required mindsets and capacities and they lead collaboratively to institutionalize this as organizational culture. The leadership model that seems to best support this work is having Sean’s unit report not to one single department, but rather into a team of five senior executives, distributing authority and responsibility—and also this thinking and practice—across the organization.

What are the key challenges to this type of work?

Fail Forward is convinced that a key challenge revolves around organizational structures that usually do not provide incentives and supports for either the individual or the organization to become comfortable with risk and to learn from failure. Examples like ATB’s Emerge unit are pioneering new structures and there is still much to learn. In addition, Ashley has noticed a challenge that is more subtle: “We’re going to have to let go of tying organizational identity to our big idea which usually also means the one, best idea. The problems before us are so much more complex than that—there is so much that we simply can’t know—so we must be willing to experiment with, accepting failure as a powerful teacher, in order to see the changes we need.”

What does this tell us about system change?

Culture change: Shifting the attitudes and values of individuals and their organizations is very complex and involves culture change at multiple scales in organizational systems or broader systems. Fail Forward is a unique organization, developing growing expertise, as well as a suite of ideas, strategies, tools, resources, and models, all of which supports alternatives to the typical failure adverse culture.

Demonstrating alternatives: As part of preparing for shifting systems of any kind, it is important to support intentional efforts to imagine, test, refine, and demonstrate alternatives. The work of Emerge at ATB demonstrates an approach to not only experiment with possibilities, but also for gaining support for thinking and acting differently. These experimental activities serve to achieve a state of readiness to make the most of opportunities for positive change.

New rules: Emerge at ATB is focused on outcomes instead of rules. Shifting away from traditional rules and towards new rules creates conditions for significant change. At ATB, the new rule is that learning is the measure of success. The guiding question is “What’s a problem that we can try to solve?” And experimental solutions do not need to be tied to any outcome, except the production of learning that is important to the organization.