September 07, 2020

Being a Learning Organisation (or why at PAK7 we celebrate our mistakes)

I remember when I used to work for IBM, a multinational IT company, there was a legendary story that was told of a salesman who had made a pretty awful mistake… According to legend, he signed a deal that caused the company to lose £1 million pounds (or 20 crore rupees) and was called into the CEO’s office. He walked nervously into the room and asked “so, are you going to fire me?”. The CEO replied instantly “Of course I’m not going to fire you, I’ve just spent a million pounds on your education. Now get out there and sign me a good contract!”.

OK, perhaps we don’t love all mistakes, but we can choose to learn from them. I can tell you honestly that at PAK7 we have made a great many mistakes – it’s not surprising, we are a new organisation, doing many things for the first time. But what I can also say, totally honestly, is that we are learning from every single one of them. After nearly every project or production we have a learning review where we take time out of our day to stop and think, to look back on what went well, and what didn’t go so well and we document it. We want to learn from everything we do, to become the best we can be, so we are prepared to look failure in the face and say “thanks for the lesson”. I’ll give you some examples:

Conducting Pilot programs: Well, there’s a clue in the title here! We conduct “pilot” programs to test them out… to learn from them before we finalise the concept and produce a whole series. This is a good way to experiment with ideas and formats, to find out what works and what doesn’t. One example, was a pilot we conducted of a children’s program called “Bedtime Stories”. We made this with the help of SAT-7 at their studios in Lebanon and although it came out pretty nicely we learnt a bunch of things! Here are just a few…

  • If you are using a teleprompter (so the presenter can read from a script), the person who is operating the teleprompter must be able to speak Urdu! Doh! It’s so obvious, but if they can’t follow the script, how do they know how fast to scroll the text?
  • We were also able to test the appropriateness of a Pakistani woman praying with a child at bedtime – without covering her head. It is a very common practice in Pakistan for Christian women (and women of other faiths) to cover their heads as they pray, but probably not when tucking their children up for bed at night. So how do you show that on TV?
  • We decided that we wanted to adjust the format of a presenter reading a story to the audience to make it more entertaining for children. For this reason, in the full series we will include a child in the show and also have a band play some music.

Another good reason for conducting a pilot is to find out what our “customers” want. In the case of our forthcoming show, “Community Makeover” we hope to be able to license it to a national TV channel – so we will make a pilot episode first so that they can see it, and we can agree any changes and a contract in advance of creating the whole series. This reduces the risk to both them and to us.

Conducting Production Reviews: once we have filmed a show we have a process of asking the production team to think through what went well and what didn’t go so well. In these cases it is often too late to go and reshoot the production, but we certainly want to think about what we need to learn for the next time we do it.

What happened with Video Star is a great example of this. It is an immensely complicated task, filming a reality-TV show, and having never done it before we made some decisions that we came to regret later. One example of this was that we had four camera teams shooting simultaneously, because there were a lot of different teams of contestants working at the same time. The downside of this was that when we came to do the edit, we had so much footage… it was really difficult to decide which bits to cut out. In retrospect, having a clearer idea of what the final production would look like before we filmed it (what we normally call a storyboard) would have been much much better. We will take that learning into the filming of Community Makeover later this year.

Conducting Performance Appraisals: We take time to review how staff members have got on throughout the year (and truthfully we do this formally once a year, but we do it informally all throughout the year!) We are building a culture on giving and receiving feedback, of reviewing what went well, what didn’t go well, what the staff member could have done differently, how the manager could do a better job. At PAK7, this is not a one-way activity where a manager assesses the staff member, it is a collective activity where we look at the role we all played and think about what we could have done differently as a team.

At IBM I had a number of excellent managers, but one in particular was so helpful for me in this regard. When we stopped to review a project that wasn’t going well, I would on occasion say about someone else that “they didn’t do their job properly”. She never let me off the hook and gently asked “what could you have done differently”. Wow! What a great question! There was almost always something I could have done differently… ask them again (email, phone call, pay them a visit), find out why they weren’t doing it, find out what they were doing, ask if they were having any challenges and help them, go to their manager as a last resort, etc. There was always something I could have done – I was never helpless, I always had the ability to make something happen. We try to learn this at PAK7, whenever we feel like pointing the finger at someone else, we turn it around and point at ourselves. Taking personal responsibility for what we are doing.

We don’t have a blame culture at PAK7 today, we have a learning culture. As the CEO, I work very hard to help staff and partners know that it is OK to make mistakes. I do not blame them, I do not come down hard on them for making mistakes… if I did, I suspect that they would stop being so honest about what went wrong. This is human nature, but it is even more so in a so-called honour/shame culture like Pakistan’s. We don’t want to bring shame on ourselves by admitting mistakes – but unless we are honest about what went wrong how will we learn. So, in PAK7 there is no shame in making mistakes… in fact we celebrate them! How can you celebrate mistakes? Well, let me tell you – we applaud people when they have a go, when they try something new, when they attempt something novel or something exciting. We want the young people we work with to experiment, to try things out, to push the boundaries. Have you ever watched a child learning to walk? They fall down… a lot. But we pick them up and help them to try again. That’s how we learn to walk! Can you imagine a parent saying “don’t try to walk, you keep failing, just sit still” or “just crawl forever”. It would never happen. At PAK7 we work with a lot of young people – deliberately, because we believe that they are the very best people to make programs that young people would like to watch. But they don’t have all the skills, they are not perfect, not the finished article… so we encourage them to try, to make mistakes and to learn from them.

I think back to that legendary story from IBM… some mistakes can be costly. But not learning from them is even worse. If the CEO had fired that salesman, what is to say that the next person he hired would not have made the same mistake? And the man who was shown grace, who kept his job, who learnt the million pound lesson… I’m pretty certain he became one of the company’s greatest assets. It reminds me of the disciple Peter, who messed up badly by denying Jesus three times having just declared that he would never desert him – Jesus reviewed that mistake with him by the sea of Galilee and Peter went on to be the rock that Christ built his church on! That’s what we are aiming for – a team that is willing to try new things, to stare its mistakes in the face, and which is always learning, always improving. In this way, we can give God our best, we can become the best version of ourselves that we can be, we can make the best programs we can make.

So at PAK7, we commit to keep on making mistakes and to keep on learning from them. Please be gracious to us as we do it 🙂