Surfer falling off.jpg

Over the summer break, I took a surfing lesson. I'd never surfed before, and more than anything it was a lesson in humility. I mean, I'd assumed it would be harder than it looked, but I'd hoped I might manage to stand on a board before the 2 hours was up! Let's just say, I've got a lot of work to do... (unlike everyone else in the lesson, including my 8 year old daughter, who seemed to be having no trouble.)

As it happened, at the time of the lesson I'd just finished reading Carol Dweck's fabulous book, "Mindset: the New Psychology of Success". Without trying to summarise Dweck's book (you can find a great summary here), it's relevant because I was surprised to find myself reacting to my surfing fails with what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. "This is hopeless," I was telling myself. "I'm obviously not cut out for this; what must the teacher think of me; perhaps I should just stop now." The more I allowed myself to think that way, the worse I got. 

Towards the very end of the lesson, I caught myself in the moment, and swung my thoughts towards what Dweck labels a growth mindset: "I'm as likely to surf as anyone else in this lesson; I just need to ask for feedback, keep experimenting and take the time to learn from the failures which are going to keep happening." And while I didn't suddenly turn into a surfing pro, I did start to enjoy myself, and finished the lesson with a clear recognition of what I'd been doing wrong. And I can't wait for the next lesson!

Many people have an engrained distaste for failure and making mistakes, so our default is to avoid them. We avoid situations that might expose us to them. We focus on what we do well because... that's what we're good at. But there's a cost. In a business context, the reluctance to experiment can hamper innovation, make it hard to identify new opportunities and to grow. When mistakes do get made, people cover them up as quickly as possible, or try to pin blame elsewhere, in order to save face and preserve status.  

As a leader, you play an important role in fostering a culture of learning and growth. What do you do to encourage people to experiment with new approaches and ideas, even if it doesn't work out? When is it okay to fail, and what does it mean to "fail well"? One business owner I know builds failure into his team's expectations. For example, he not only sets sales targets, but also sets rejection targets. He expects people to be getting a certain number of rejections, because if they don't, he assumes they're not being adventuresome enough. The only proviso is that the rejections have to include 'experiments' i.e. I tried X, it didn't quite work, but here's what I'm going to try next time.

Another General Manager I work with has been trying to foster a culture of innovation in her organisation, but found that ideas were moving too slowly because people weren't confident their ideas were worthy enough. So, she's now set a target that 10 new ideas should be tabled to the executive team each quarter, but with the expectation that 9 of those will probably be rejected. I love it - she's shifted the team's focus from "nail it' to "throw lots of ideas up". Experiment fast, learn fast.

So how about you? What's your philosophy on the art of making mistakes? What do you do to make it safe for people to experiment and learn when appropriate? I'd love you to leave a comment below.


PS. Thanks to Ian Sanderson for the photo in this month's post. And no, it's not me.