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Freedom to Fail – Part 2

September 25th, 2009

In my last post, I talked about Vinod Khosla’s “freedom to fail” thinking.  But, how do entrepreneurs develop this? Is it acquired or are they born with it?

Freedom to Fail Learned?

One wonders: where does “freedom to fail” come from? Some of us seem to be born with a “spirit of exploration” (one that tends to drive our parents nuts in early years). Think of Ted Turner in his younger years (dropped out of Brown U) –probably exhibited a high “freedom to fail” component in many things he did – a certain irreverent personality. Picture Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard undergrad (failure to finish Harvard? so what!).  Or, modern day repeat, Mark Zuckerberg on an even faster race to financial freedom.  It doesn’t appear that they harbored a concern with failure.  I’m sure there were some healthy debates with college-paying parents, but ultimately the some of the greatest entrepreneurial examples of our times seem to exhibit a freedom to fail.

Yet, for others, environment definitely shapes our “Freedom to Fail”.  It comes with maturity.  Did parents use an encouraging touch? Were influential teacher allow students to make mistakes and learn from them. Did peers reinforce mistakes or mock them? Tim Brown, Found/CEO of IDEO talks about this “freedom to play” in his TED Talk from 2008 Serious Plan conference.

Pixar’s “Peer Culture”

Greg Brandeau, SVP of Pixar loves to talk about the culture of Pixar that the executive team has developed. The company strongly values collectigregbrandeauve creativity – the “peer” culture in which employees are encouraged to help one another out. Greg points out the “culture makes the team” – by that he means that keeping a culture where it’s safe for one express their opinions, make mistakes, learn from others (Pixar University has an incredible number of topics/courses for employees). Key to this is attracting VERY talented people – the rule of thumb is hire someone brighter and smarter than yourself. However, at Pixar “the Team builds the culture” – the company is run as a meritocracy (the better ideas float to the top) and innovation is all about the concept itself not whose idea it was in the first place. All of this basically creates an environment where an extremely bright set of people are not afraid to express their creativity.

Setting the Creative Culture

Patty McCord, the SVP of “Talent” and architect of Netflix’s unique culture, says that allowing people to fail at what they doPatty1_image is one of the most critical elements of the success of Netflix. At Netflix Inc., CTO (“Chief Talent Officer”) Patty McCord and founder, Reed Hastings, have taken this one step further, creating the “Freedom and Responsibility” culture. The company has deliberately built its culture in a way that allows employees the freedom to experiment, take on challenges and sometimes even fail. In essence, by giving employees the freedom to create and solve problems on their own accord, they fight off bureaucracy and control issues at the company grows.

You can see Patty’s Freedom and Responsibility Culture posted in PPT format. Patty is joining me on October 7th at UC Berkeley for my class on Innovation, Creativity & The Entrepreneur and the unveiling of a virtual case study on Netflix that we filmed at Netflix.

Freedom to Fail – Part 1

September 23rd, 2009

This past month, I was struck by something that Vinod Khosla brought up at the Haas School while accepting a “Lifetime Achievement” award, and have been turning it over in my mind many times… Khosla is responsible for major successes at Daisy Systems, Sun Microsystems, huge portfolio wins at Kleiner Perkins (KPCB) over the years, and is now responsible for at $1+ billion new fund at Khosla Ventures. What would you guess contributed most to his success: an eye for technology? Luck? Choosing the right teams?

Khosla’s secret to success

When asked what most contributed to his success over the years, Vinod boils it down to this: the Freedom to Fail. According to Khosla and many others, if we feel that we have the freedom & ability to push ourselves to the limit, create new ideas, and start companies we believe in – we are more likely to succeed. An entrepreneur who allows FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) to creep in about his/her abilities and leadership, and fears failure is more likely to fail. More on this in a video of Vinod from SDForum awards 2 months prior.

Lessons from Early Yahoo

As part of the original Yahoo team, I observed this first-hand. There as a general feeling among the team that “hey, if this doesn’t quite go the way we imagined, we’ll fix it and try something else.”  If the worldwide web (or Yahoo)  didn’t quite take off, some of us would  just go back to their happy lives as grad students at Stanford and continue on.   Of course that didnt’ happen.  And, it was later on, after the company tasted big success that fear of failure crept in.

So, I have been wondering: what’s the link between “freedom to fail” and creativity in a start-up?  Do most successful entrepreneurial environments include this element? Is Freedom to fail learned or are some of us born with a certain “chutspah” that keeps us from thinking about failure? Can an entrepreneur deliberately set up a “Freedom to Fail” culture?  (More next post –>)