Thomas Edison tried roughly 1,200 experiments before discovering the light bulb. When asked what it felt like to fail 1,200 times, he responded that he didn’t fail 1,200 times, but rather he learned 1,200 ways to not make a light bulb.
Good thing he was the CEO of his own company!
Imagine the workplace today. How much grace and patience do we give people to succeed?
More importantly, how much grace and patience do leaders say they give their people compared to reality? Most leaders are quick to state they support this idea, but it’s rare to see them follow through.
Instead, we see that being a “perfectionist” is the real preferred character trait from leaders that are hesitant to embrace taking chances.
When thinking about the best, most innovative companies in the world, the core theme that aligns them all together is this emphasis on progress, not perfection.
The companies that thrive, regardless of what is going on the economy, are the ones that are nimble enough to run multiple experiments at the same time, diagnose which experiments are achieving progress, and then experiment further until a desired result is achieved.
This article overviews what both employees and companies can do to build a culture that embraces mistakes.
As an employee, regardless of whether you are in a leadership position, you might wonder how much of an impact you, individually, can have on your company’s culture. You might also be wondering if these ideas run the risk of getting you fired.
Disclaimer: Applying these ideas may get you fired.
If you are at a company that would fire you for following the suggestions below, you are likely miserable at this company, and it is time for you to move on. Following these tips will expedite that process and help you move into a better work situation. Also, applying these principles effectively, and documenting them, will make you an extremely attractive candidate to any organization that does in fact embrace mistakes.
- Be a scientist
Being a scientist means that you run a series of experiments. To experiment means to introduce one new variable while holding all other variables constant to observe if a different (either positive or negative) result is achieved.
● Experimenting within the company
o Handling a frustrating boss – Infrequent feedback from your boss can be frustrating, especially when your only chance to learn about your work is during an annual performance review. It’s nerve-wracking waiting to find out how they view your performance when feedback is so rare. If you’d like to change this, try different and unique ways to gather their feedback – perhaps ask them for help, ask them if you are making a mistake, or flat out ask for feedback.
▪ Pro tip – Try documenting this process. Write down your current behavior, note what behavior you are changing, and then what your hypothesized results will be. Then create a timeline for when you will evaluate the results and use this to measure the change. Most people give up after half-heartedly trying one thing and assume their situation is doomed. By writing down the experiment, it is easier to be objective about the results and be willing to try new experiments.
o Handling a frustrating direct report – If your direct report isn’t listening to you or not getting all of the work that you would like accomplished, you are going to have to try something different. Try a new method for better understanding their priority order, their concerns, and their roadblocks – perhaps ask them different questions to help you better understand their situation, schedule more frequent 1:1’s, or communicate why achieving whatever task needs to get done is important to you.
● Experimenting Externally
o Sales – If you are struggling to meet your sales numbers, allocate a certain amount of time every week to trying something new that could work. Follow the pro tip above for some help on how to effectively evaluate your experiments.
o Operations – If you are discovering that there is a communication gap with the handoff of work between departments, communicate to both departments a new strategy for increasing the efficiency, what your hypotheses are, what the timeline of the experiment is, and what success will look like if success is achieved. Also explain that if success isn’t achieved, that a new strategy will be implemented until the desired result is achieved.
This is just the framework for how to experiment. The actual strategies you deploy for working through your work scenario are likely different and better than the strategies I proposed because you know your work situation and yourself best.
2. Communicate your experiments, hypotheses, and results throughout the company
People at your company may wonder why you are acting differently. By writing down your experiments, hypotheses and results, it is easier to communicate with others why you are acting differently.
However, if your experiment involves other people you are working with, you can’t inform them that you are changing your behavior. If you do, you will be altering multiple variables, rendering your experiment moot.
For example, if you want your boss to stop showing up late to meetings with you so you decide that you are going to ask your boss’s secretary to schedule their meeting with you for 5 minutes before it is actually supposed to start, if you tell your boss you are doing that, your boss is going to adjust their behavior because they now know this information.
3. Document results so others can learn from you
This is especially important for helping convey why you have an opinion on a matter moving forward. If you properly document your experiments and your results, your perspective will hold much more weight than somebody who is just giving their opinion.
Advice for Leaders at Companies:
- Remove “perfectionists”
Anyone who refers to themselves as a perfectionist should be approached with caution and wrangled appropriately. A perfectionist is somebody, based on their current knowledge base and skill set, that will perform the same activity over and over again the exact same way. These people are not interested in learning new ways of doing things because the amount of knowledge they would need to alter their behavior is too great, so any time spent learning a new behavior isn’t worth it. These people are also unwilling to experiment as the fear of making a mistake or not having an experiment align with the hypotheses is too great to overcome.
Perfection is the enemy of progress. Perfectionists will do everything in their power to not change anything because they have spent all of their time and energy becoming “perfect” at one way of acting.
2. Be collaborative when diagnosing failed experiments
When an experiment is tried and it is determined it didn’t work how you were expecting, invite the entire team to participate in the evaluation process of why it failed and what can be tried in the future to achieve different results.
This also communicates that failure is okay.
This is particularly important for leading global teams, especially global teams that were raised in societies with different norms and perspectives on mistakes and failed experiments.
For example, a technical executive was leading a team of software developers, mostly from India. He ended up learning that a member of his team made a mistake months ago but told nobody. He tried to fix it himself, but the problem got worse and eventually the client called him to inform him that they were pulling their contract because of the technical difficulties they were encountering. Some learning lessons he took from this were that he needs to have a process for identifying these errors and that he needs to build a culture where his team feels comfortable being vulnerable, honest and open when a mistake is made.
3. Document then celebrate the learning lessons
Once a failed experiment has been diagnosed, document it for the entire company to learn from. Holding an experiment and learning that the hypothesis didn’t work is fine. But running the same experiment over and over again and achieving the same undesired result, is not fine. Failed experiments shouldn’t be locked in some vault where only the experimenters can reflect on. Failed experiments should be celebrated! This communicates that learning from failure is endorsed by the organization and creates positive memories associated with lessons learned.
If you are interested in continuing the dialogue, the Ambition In Motion YouTube channel will be hosting weekly live panel sessions until July 27th, 2023 with executives discussing this topic of How to Build a Culture of Embracing Mistakes.