Stop Failing and start Experimenting

I wanna talk to you about failing. Nowadays we’re taught that failing is a good thing, to fail fast and to learn from our mistakes. But how are we supposed to do that when we’re conditioned to see failing as bad from a very young age? Now I’m not suggesting that we avoid the entire notion of failure because it’s inevitable in life, and building resilience is a positive thing. But if all we ever talk about is embracing failure, failing fast and learning from mistakes… well that’s gonna get pretty demoralising!

I’d like to share with you a different approach, which I initially heard on the Agile for Humans podcast. In it, Ryan Ripley discusses with Kent Beck about treating product development and learning in business as experiments and not failures, and I got to thinking if this is something we could apply at a personal level. In an experiment you have a hypothesis, and you aim to either validate or invalidate that hypothesis. There is no failure, only outcomes. Using objective language like this offers a psychological safety net, in that it distances us from the notion of failure and more towards a path of continual improvement. 

Now this is definitely easier said than done, take it from someone who struggles with the fear of failure, especially in front of others. If I could go back in time and give myself 5 tips this is what they’d be: 

Stop failing and start Experimenting 

Let’s just accept that no one likes to fail, and whilst we continue to use this language people are going to be put off doing it. It’s human nature to avoid failure but doing so stifles personal growth, and is a blocker in people realising their potential. Reframing the situation is the difference between “I’m afraid of speaking to a big group or trying something new” and “I’m curious to see what happens or how I feel when I do X” The more you think about failures the less likely you’ll be willing to try new things, and that compounds over time and can be really debilitating. Thinking about it as experiments reassures us that it’s not always a case of success or failure – sometimes you just gotta try something to see if it’s for you. You don’t necessarily need a hypothesis to start with, your experiments can be more for exploration of something new or the unknown. But you could use that starting point to reflect and review how something went and then define hypotheses. Which brings me on to tip number 2…

Breaking it down and making it SMART 

So this is all about breaking down those amorphous challenges into experiments. Having time boxed, specific and measurable hypotheses allows you to focus on marginal gains, experimenting with specifics which after breaking down are hopefully smaller and far less daunting than the original challenge. An example of this could be “which presenting style do I feel most comfortable with? Big gesticulations? Walking around and using the space?” A more specific example of this could be “when I gesticulate more whilst speaking, the audience is more engaged” or “when I open my body up, I feel more confident” Timebox your experiments, with clear and measurable outcomes. This allows you to keep focussed and regularly tweak your experiments as a way of iteratively learning.

Continuous Improvement

You’ll rarely get it right first time, but by not shrowding yourself in failure you can objectively review your experiments and identify better ways to validate your hypotheses, or you may realise it’s the hypothesis itself that’s invalid and needs changing. An example might be “I kept stumbling over my sentences, and used filler words excessively whilst talking. What would happen next time if I slowed down or paused for 2 seconds between each line?” “I feel like I’m micromanaging my team”, what happens if I set clearer expectations but give them more agency?” Make sure you get regular feedback which you can use to either improve your approach or tweak the hypothesis you’re working with. 

When a hypothesis is invalid, conclude and move on

Changing the language isn’t a silver bullet, and there will be some experiments which won’t quite go to plan. It might be a case of trying an unsuitable leadership style for the situation, or a communication style that you just don’t feel comfortable with. Like with any experiment, review your findings and make them constructive and use these as the basis to either tweak your experiment, or conclude and move on to the next one. What makes treating failures more like experiments is that regardless of whether your hypothesis is valid or invalid, the focus is always to take learnings from it and improve as an individual – no matter how small the change, it all adds up. Ask yourself the question “Well what did I learn, and what can I do differently next time?”

Keep a Positive mindset and remember whatever happens you’ll be OK.

Now this is particularly difficult, as anyone who’s faced imposter syndrome knows that it’s not as simple as just saying “stay positive” and suddenly all of your fears and insecurities fade away. But there are little steps you can do that build up to big change. For example, positive affirmations in the morning or before a meeting can put you in the right frame of mind, celebrating the successes whenever they happen, no matter how small. Anticipating and visualising the things that could go wrong but focusing on how you’ll constructively handle them, instead of resorting to “fight or flight”.

So that’s my 5 tips on how to think more like experiments. Let’s break the stigma around failure and start talking in a language which encourages us to explore our true potential.