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How To Transition From A ‘Fail Fast’ Mentality To A ‘Learn Fast’ Mindset

Mike DePrisco is the COO of Project Management Institute (PMI), a world-leading association for project professionals and changemakers.

Many leaders, particularly those in the technology industry, instruct their people to “fail fast” — to recognize when something isn’t working and quickly move on to something new. While a “fail fast” mentality may have been acceptable in the past, the present-day workplace instead demands learning fast as businesses grapple with challenges such as supply chain disruptions, inflation, climate change and ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic. This balancing act occurs all while being under extraordinary pressure to innovate, grow and outperform the competition.

In today’s fast-moving business landscape, in which slowing down is not an option, the only way to be a digital-first, data-driven, customer-centric organization is to get better at getting better. This requires creating a culture where experimentation is the norm, not the exception — where employees feel free to try new things, test new approaches and pivot, when necessary, to put key learnings into action. In essence, your culture should encourage learning and optimizing in a nimble and agile way by fostering a collective mindset of continuous improvement.

Creating that culture does involve getting comfortable with failure because there is no experimentation without failure. Consider, for a moment, that 90% of new drug compounds never make it to market, and 80% of Broadway musicals never recoup their investment.

But just telling employees that they should “fail fast” doesn’t cut it anymore. Employees are naturally skeptical of such management bromides, and few are willing to put their jobs on the line to test a risky idea. And though many business leaders say they give their people the freedom to fail, when the rubber meets the road, their actions often suggest otherwise.

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There are ways, however, that leaders can demonstrate they’re serious about encouraging employees to experiment and, yes, sometimes fail if it’s for the benefit of learning. If you think about it, we all have a need for psychological safety, and creating an environment for experimentation and learning requires a commitment that must start at the top of the organization. Leaders must unequivocally give their teams permission to lean forward and take risks.

This commitment requires a willingness to formalize business practices that encourage prudent risk-taking. It involves recognizing that organizations today need to be in a perpetual state of transformation. It’s no longer acceptable for leaders to think of transformation as a singular event that happens over a period of two or three years. We need to be constantly transforming by closely monitoring where markets are headed, studying the macro trends shaping our world and always probing the implications for our business.

Organizations with this kind of mindset are fertile grounds for experimentation and learning. But they also need to institutionalize a specific set of business practices that allow that spirit of experimentation to flourish. Here are a few suggestions:

Give employees the training and tools they need to be successful.

Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. By providing opportunities for your staff to learn project management skills as well as how to collaborate and give feedback, you increase the likelihood that some of these experiments will yield powerful and impactful results. In order to turn their ideas into reality, employees will also need the right tools at their disposal. Virtual collaboration rooms, hackathons and software tools like Slack and Teams can all bring employees together to share ideas.

Remember that true innovation takes time.

If you’re serious about experimentation, you need to set aside time during the week when employees can work on new ideas without distractions, such as by designating certain days or times as meeting-free. Google famously allows employees to spend 20% of their working hours focused on projects that fall outside of their primary responsibilities, a policy that is responsible for products like Gmail, Google News and AdSense.

Set appropriate guardrails to guide risk-taking.

In project management, one best practice is to require teams to assess potential business risks at the start of the project. This will allow you to establish realistic governance parameters that mitigate the possibility that a failure would have major business implications.

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When projects fail, use the learnings to inform future actions.

Don’t sweep failures under the rug. Mine them for ideas and lessons that can be applied to the business going forward. And celebrate the teams involved for taking the risk in the first place and for the learnings they’ve contributed that will guide actions in the future.

All these practices will contribute to building a culture of trust, which is essential for experimentation and prudent risk-taking.

Leaders must make sure they don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk by recognizing that their reaction, even when a failure occurs, will speak volumes. People need to feel secure that they can take risks, and they need to see management backing up its words with behaviors that support experimentation. It’s the responsibility of leadership to ensure that these messages are heard, understood and adopted within an organization.

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