James Bond management: Permission to fail

The two most critical aspects of James Bond management are the employer’s trust of the employee and the employee’s trust of the employer.

The employer must trust the employee’s ability and intention.  In terms of ability, the employer must be confident that given the freedom to make decisions, the James Bond employee will in the aggregate make them well enough that overall results will exceed those of a micromanaged, non-James Bond employee, which I refer to as a hand puppet.  Let’s repeat that because it is important:

A James Bond employee will make decisions on her own.  In the aggregate the quality of results will be better than it would with a hand puppet.

In other words, you’re paying for a brain that is blessed with experience, knowledge, and the ability to reason.  You’re not paying for fingers to type and a mouth to talk and legs to go to meetings.  Those are simply the tools that brain uses to succeed.  If you fail to take advantage of that brain, you’re not getting everything you paid for.

The employee’s trust needs for the employer are a little more complicated, but ultimately it boils down to the idea that the employee needs to understand that she’s expected to be a James Bond employee.  The employee must understand that expectations are high and that within the bounds of her purview she’s the ultimate decision maker.  But most importantly of all, the employee must understand that the managers have her back.  The employee must be able to trust that if she sincerely does her best, that management will stand by her whether she succeeds or fails.

In short, employees need permission to fail.  You as a manager have to accept that sometimes your people will try something experimental, or take a worthy risk, or just throw ideas at the wall to see if they stick.  Done intelligently and with purpose all these methods are valid parts of your repertoire.  But employees can only do so if they won’t be penalized for taking a flyer that doesn’t work.

I once worked in a corporate environment where nobody noticed your successes and everybody noticed your failures.  As you might expect, this environment completely stifled innovation in even the smallest form.  That was because individual employees had everything to lose and nothing to gain by making changes.  If you had an idea that was 90% likely to revolutionize your business for the better and only 10% likely to amount to nothing, you’d never execute on it.  That’s because the smart employee would do the math as follows:

Likelihood of career upside – 0%.
Likelihood of career suicide – 10%.

Nobody in her right mind would take a 10% chance of assassinating her reputation with no chance of gain.  People actually reasoned this way, and the company suffered for it.

Now, when I’m at the helm it goes differently.  You’re welcome to take chances that are well reasoned, plausible, and beholden to good risk-reward math.  You will never be punished for taking these chances, even if they don’t turn out.  Nobody wins at the poker table who hasn’t played some losing hands, and likewise you can’t win in the corporate world if you’re unwilling to try things that aren’t guaranteed to work.

Now that still doesn’t mean you behave stupidly or thoughtlessly or randomly.  Those are still unacceptable.  But it does mean you have some room or explore and learn.  Thomas Edison famously tried thousands of substances as filaments before he found the one that made light bulbs commercially possible.  Your James Bond employees need the same ability to learn empirically.  Give them that, and they’ll improve your business in ways you literally never thought of.

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