Get Comfortable with Treating Failure as Data
When something is broken, fix it. Use your expertise or the expertise of others to get back to the status quo. We call that technical work. So often though, we’re working on challenges that require us to be innovative or generative. And in that space, expertise is insufficient. We’ve probably already tried all our usual tricks and we’re still stuck. We’ve probably called in outside experts and yet, the challenge still exists. It’s a sign we have adaptive work on our hands. And in that space, we need to get comfortable with failure.
That’s what acting experimentally is all about. It’s intervening and acknowledging you’re not sure what impact that intervention will have. You can’t exercise leadership without experimentation. You need to develop the stomach to try something, fail, learn from it and experiment again. And creating cultures where you normalize that behavior for others is just as important.
We’re not saying, “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” or “risk it all and see what happens.” We are suggesting that often our internal fear of failure keeps us from experimenting.
How do you act experimentally in a smart way?
- Determine how much you care. The more you care, the more likely you’ll be open to the risk of experimenting. Don’t experiment everywhere, all the time. Start where you have clear passion or connection.
- Start cautiously. Experimentation is about the next, small, right step. Begin with less risky interventions. Grow into more risky experiments.
- Be scientific. Ground your experiment in a clear purpose. Write a hypothesis. Ask yourself what you’ll monitor. What will you watch for that tells you what impact your experiment is having?
- Get started. Experiments should be actionable in the near term. What could you do in the next two weeks that would be a first step to work your challenge for the purpose of learning, engagement or progress?
- Debrief. Pause between experiments to determine what you or others learned.
- Involve others. Don’t experiment in secret. Who can you partner with? Who can support you?
- Make experimentation your standard operating procedure. Normalize it within your sphere of influence when your purpose is innovation or generation.
This last point is important. Building cultures where everyone leads requires all of us to normalize experimentation. Talk about it. Use the word “experiment” often. Invite others to talk about what feels risky about experimenting. Help them redefine failure. Even if the experiment doesn’t play out as you hypothesized, you have a whole new set of data you didn’t have before. Use that data to design your next experiment.
If you have formal authority (role or title) within a system, this last paragraph is especially directed toward you. You can model your belief that progress on tough challenges is made with a series of experiments. Use your authority to focus attention on areas ripe for experimentation by others.