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Success – or not

“We want to be successful; we want to be the best,” is one of the most common responses when leaders are asked about organization goals. But as I watch those organizations and individuals who are outwardly and apparently successful, I wonder, “Is that what we really want? Or do we want to inspire mastery?”

Success is a peak moment in time, captured in a photograph or by the plaque on the wall. It might be captured in Monday morning data, now the recent past. It may be celebrated for a night or a few days. It might even be noted on the local television station or newspaper. But success is not lasting.

Mastery focuses on what there is to learn, where the growing edge might be, and the discipline to continue moving forward. Mastery demands endurance and courage. It is not motivated by success or perfection – which have more to do with how others view us and what we do.

Mastery is not the same as success – which is only a moment in time. It is a constant pursuit of improvement, growth, and creativity. It is resilience in times of less than desirable outcomes and even outright failure.

Leaders can act to promote the pursuit of mastery over success:

Analyze Failure. Intermountain Healthcare, a system of 23 hospitals in Utah and Idaho, routinely analyzes physicians’ deviations from medical protocols. The goal is growth and improvement. Actively tracking and analyzing deviations and sharing the outcome data encourage physicians to buy into this program. The goal is to motivate people to move beyond the surface: “procedures weren’t followed,” to identifying critical thinking skills and understanding outcomes and results.1

Promote creativity. Mayo Clinic created the “queasy eagle” award honoring near, but abandoned wins. The goal was to create change and transformation after realizing that years of intolerance of failure stopped medical breakthroughs. In the 18 years prior to this award, Mayo had created only 36 new ideas for patient care in a particular field. In the year following, 245 new ideas were created, some of which are now patented.2

Build a learning culture. A learning culture is one where failures of all types, large and small, are reported, analyzed, and used as opportunities for discovery and growth. It is a culture where experiments are encouraged over and over again. Some leaders worry that being sympathetic to failure will lead to “anything goes.” In our complex world, failure is certain. It is our response to it that will dictate whether positive change and transformation emerge.

Creating an organizational culture that seeks mastery over success is not magic. It must be fought for every day in a disciplined, intentional way. It requires leadership, not management. If you lose this battle, you may lose the battle for talent and sustainability.

Mastery invests in people not just tools. It encourages risk rather than punishing failure. It rewards contribution not competition. It accepts responsibility rather than assigning blame. It thinks of span of influence, not span of control. It focuses on “what” is right instead of “who” is right.

A master does not know a subject perfectly, from end-to-end. An organization that seeks mastery will not be a perfect place to work. Those who seek mastery know that there is more that they don’t know that what they do know. The learning organization knows that there will always be more to learn.

Those who lead toward mastery know that courage is not the absence of fear. How do you define success?

1Bohmer, R.M.M. (2010). “Fixing Health Care on the Front Lines,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010
2APQC. (2006) “Mayo Clinic Innovation: Putting Ideas into Action,” American Productivity & Quality Center, p. 139.

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