What do potato chips, Post-It Notes, pacemakers, penicillin and Silly Putty all have in common?
They were all created by making mistakes. In fact, in each case, the inventor was attempting to create something completely different and thought that he had failed with the final product. Of course, as decades have gone by and profits have been made, the benefit of hindsight tells us that these so-called failures were actually triumphs. It’s like that old adage about Thomas Edison and the light bulb: When questioned on his many failures, he retorted that he hadn’t failed 10,000 times, but succeeded in finding 10,000 methods that wouldn’t work.
Failure, mistakes, mishaps — they all play a vital role in helping employees learn and grow, too. Unfortunately, however, organizations penalize mistakes and create employees that are risk-averse and too shy or nervous to try anything new. A recipe for stagnation, the best companies are those that encourage failure, embrace out-of-the-box thinking, and allow employees to make mistakes and see what happens.
Your Brain Actually Expands on Failure
Something interesting happens to the brain when you make a mistake. According to a report in published in Scientific American, your brain begins compiling information about the experience and actually gets bigger throughout the learning scenario. And, while the brain returns to close to its original size after the learning experience, it retains new neural pathways by taking in new information, compiling the key takeaways from trial and error. Making mistakes matures the brain, resulting in more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons. In short, failure can actually make you smarter.
Leadership Must Encourage Mistakes
Yes, this might sound crazy at first, but our leadership team embraces this mentality at my company, eLearning Mind. What we’ve found is by embracing mistakes, it gives employees the confidence to try new things and not feel bad about it if it doesn’t work out one time. The best marketers continuously try out new ideas, figure out which ones don’t work, and take with them the one or two ideas that stick and drive results. What we’ve discovered by applying this to our business is that this same mentality, when applied to business management, drives far more innovation and deeper employee happiness through encouraged creativity.
But how does an organization go from a place where mistakes are penalized to an environment in which failure is embraced and encouraged? A few key changes to your culture’s ecosystem can create a safer space where employees feel empowered to try something new.
- Lead by example. If employees are to learn that failure is encouraged, it needs to start with management. Organization leaders must not only demonstrate the importance of trying new solutions, but also be OK and even welcoming of others doing the same thing. It may require a top-down shift in mentality, but keep in mind that employees will take their cues from their leaders.
- Encourage transparency. Employees should feel comfortable communicating ideas across different departments and channels. Transparency in the workplace helps reduce some of the tendency to hide or conceal mistakes. After all, if everyone is comfortable sharing ideas and failures, it sets a precedent that it’s no big deal, and that all employees can learn from each other’s successes and failures. At our company, we use Slack as a way for everyone on the team to share new ideas, see what each department is working on, and understand where the company vision is at all times.
- Encourage “fast failure.” Let employees know that if they’re going to try something new (and potentially fail) that it should be done quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean rapid-fire ideas, but rather trying something new in its skeleton form before going ahead with major development. Instead of creating a 50-page manual, for example, an employee could create an outline and ask for opinions to see if she’s on the right track. That way, if it does end up being a failure, fewer resources were used up and the employee can move onto a different solution quickly.
- Create simulations. If employees seem hesitant to make decisions and test new ideas in a real-world setting, use simulations to help them practice decision-making skills in a safe space. Some simulations are obvious, such as learning to use a new piece of equipment. But simulations and scenarios can also be used to try out concepts like new sales tactics or teambuilding exercises. When employees know the stakes are low, they’ll be more willing to speak up and make suggestions without repercussions.
Whether you’re creating the next potato chip or you’re trying to increase customer satisfaction, your workforce is a wealth of knowledge, experience, creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, if they feel stifled or scared to make mistakes, your organization won’t get to reap those benefits. By encouraging failure and all of the benefits that come from making mistakes, your company can officially become a place of higher learning.