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 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 important, 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 who 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 in the economy, are the ones that are nimble enough to run multiple experiments at the same time, diagnose which experiments are achieving progress, then experiment further until a desired result is achieved.
Here’s what employees and companies can do to build a culture that embraces mistakes.
Be a scientist: 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.
Experiment within the company: 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.
Experiment externally: 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.
Communicate your experiments: People at your company might 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.
Don’t give everything away, however. For example, you want your boss to stop showing up late to meetings with you, so you decide to ask your boss’s secretary to schedule meetings with you for five minutes before they are actually supposed to start. But if you tell your boss you are doing that, your boss is going to adjust their behavior because they now know this information. :Document your results: This is especially important for helping to 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.
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, who 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 hypothesis is too great to overcome.
Be collaborative: 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 OK. 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.
Document and celebrate lessons learned: 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 them. 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 27, with executives discussing this topic of “How to Build a Culture of Embracing Mistakes.”•
Mintz is founder of Ambition in Motion, a firm that helps companies increase employee engagement and collaboration by implementing corporate mentor programs.