When Trial And Error Becomes Trial By Fire

The speed of your success will be determined by your T & E or your OP & E

When I was a professor, I was often amused by the naivety of my students. They would argue that the best way to learn was through T&E or trial and error. And there’s a lot to be said for throwing yourself into a project, getting your hands dirty, and learning from experience.

The problem with that approach is the time it takes. It’s terribly time-consuming to try one approach, then another, and another, to see what works. That’s learning the “hard way.”

As I observe truly successful people and highly successful companies, I’ve noticed that they take a very different approach. And they achieve success a great deal quicker — because they don’t have to start at square one, experimenting with trial and error to see what works. They start with OPE or “Other People’s Experience.”

In other words, truly successful people and highly successful companies learn from the successes and failures of others. They study the best to become the best, and in the process, they almost always get better.

What about you? And what about your organization? Are you studying the best? Are you sifting through their practices so you can learn from them? And are you taking action on what you’re learning? I hope so. The speed of your success depends on it.

In my speaking and consulting across the world, I found one such group that needs to be mentioned — Lloyds TSB Bank, to be found in the United Kingdom. They are working hard to be the best, and I think the process they are following would be helpful to any organization.

When Eric Daniels, The Group Chief Executive, was asked about building the best bank in the UK, he outlined the three dimensions of being the best. He said he wanted to build: “1) an organization that the staff feels proud to work for, 2) one that customers feel offers superior value, and 3) one that shareholders are delighted to own.”

Mr. Daniels is right — especially in the way he emphasized people in each of his three points. People are at the heart of every business. And good people, with passion and commitment, make the difference. Daniels says, “What distinguishes companies that perform consistently well, more than anything else, is people and culture.”

Good words and great insight. However, I find lots of organizations talk about the importance of people. They preach it in their meetings and pronounce it in their commercials. And somehow or other they hope their people “get the message,” “rise to the challenge,” and somehow, magically “become the best.”

Well, it just doesn’t work that way. The best organizations know they’ve got to train-train-train their people to be the best. And Lloyds TSB is doing just that. Their approach has lessons for all of us.


Everybody is so busy these days, and many people are overwhelmed. That’s life. And so when it comes to training or developing your people, there are no “good” times to do it. It’s either a “bad” time or a “really bad time.”

In fact, I can often distinguish between struggling and succeeding companies by their commitment to managerial and employee development. The strugglers will tell me they’re “too busy right now,” and they’ll “wait until things settle down.”

Lloyds TSB, by contrast, recognizes the reality of busyness — but they insist on training their people anyway. In their in-house “University” catalog, they state, “For most of us, just ‘getting the job done’ is hard enough, let alone trying to spend time working on our development. However, learning is essential if we’re going to achieve our objectives.”

The lesson is obvious. If you’re going to be one of the best organizations, then you’ve got to make training an integral part of your culture — not something you stick in when you have the time or a little extra money.


In struggling, old-fashioned organizations, asking for help is considered to be a sign of weakness. It might even be dangerous. After all, if you admit you don’t know something, it might give others a chance to take advantage of you or even remove you.

More enlightened organizations take a very different approach. They know there is always room for improvement, and they welcome it when their employees admit they don’t know something. They take it as an indication of motivation. And they see it as a sign that their employees want to do better.

Lloyds TSB is trying to create that kind of learning environment. Mark Winterburn, the IT Service Delivery Director insists, “We need to work as a team in being honest with each other when we need help.”

Do you work in an organization like that? And are you working on making your organization a place where people can be open and honest? It’s absolutely critical.

There’s an easy way to test that. If you’re a manager and your employees are telling you the same things they’re saying in the lunchroom, you’ve created an open environment. And if your team members are saying the same things in your meetings that they’re saying in the hallway–behind your back after the meeting–you’ve created a safe environment.

Encourage your people to ask for training. Few things are more important for an organization’s success than employees who want to learn and get better.


Another critical goal at Lloyds TSB is making it “a great place to work.” The leaders know the figures from the Economic and Social Research Council, and they are determined to be better. In 2002, 29% of workers across the country were generally satisfied with work, down from 55% ten years earlier.

The leaders of Lloyds TSB know that positive work environments lead to job satisfaction, and job satisfaction leads to improved coworker relationships. Improved coworker relationships lead to improved customer service, and improved service affects the bottom line.

Mike Fairey, the Deputy Group Chief Executive says, “We need to create a positive environment so that all our people have the confidence to grow to their full potential.” That certainly makes sense. In fact, one of the main reasons people fight change is their lack of self-confidence. They’re not sure they can succeed in a changed environment.

So at Lloyds TSB, they train the whole person–not just the technical aspect of someone’s job. And one of their more forward-thinking leaders, John Downey, the Head of Infrastructure Services in Service Delivery, even offers a course in “Self-Confidence,” a course that is pursued by every manager and every employee.

John says, “I passionately believe it’s really important that individuals are given time to grow and develop their capabilities, especially when faced with demanding schedules and periods of significant change. And that’s why I’m determined to ensure my staff is equipped with the right skills to cope with whatever challenges come their way.”

Wow! I know a lot of people who would love to work for a boss like that — one that makes sure his coworkers have the skills they need to face the future with confidence and success.

Of course, some people will object to training the whole person. They say training takes time and money. And they ask, what if you train your employees and they leave?” I would say it would be much worse to not train your employees and have them stay.

As strange as it may sound, one of the best ways to keep your best people is to keep on training them — in everything from job skills to people skills. Good employees feel as long as they’re not stuck, as long as they’re learning, they’ll stay and perform.

That’s why Group IT, a division of Lloyds TSB promises to “provide a supportive and encouraging environment where people can develop their skills and experience.” And that’s why their performance management program is designed to “equip every individual with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful” because they are “creating a culture of life-long learning and development.”

Wolfgang Berndt, the Non-Executive Director at Lloyds TSB, said it best. He said, “In a high performance organization, training and learning are highly prized. And everybody receives training in a variety of skills that go typically beyond their immediate job responsibilities.”

Does that sound like your organization? I hope so. That’s what it takes to be highly successful in today’s challenging business environment.

Action:  Look around your organization. Are people asking for training? Do you see these signs of motivation and commitment? If not, write down three things you can do to make it okay for people to ask for training.

And then ask yourself if your organization is training the whole person. The most recent research makes it quite clear that the best people have more than technical competence. They also have “emotional intelligence.”

If your training is somewhat deficient in the personal or interpersonal “emotional intelligence” areas, find out what kinds of courses would be welcomed by your coworkers, and find ways to make such courses available.