Get comfortable with error to let your creativity thrive

I often read and listen variations of the “fail often, fail fast” mantra from people and organizations that want to innovate, especially in tech. You have to know how to fail, and turn it into a success over time. Error is part of the innovation process. I couldn’t agree more.

But I have two main concerns:

  1. Nobody wants to make mistakes. It’s something we deal with, not something we’re after.
  2. It’s not that easy. It’s hard to accept that one has made a mistake.

So I thought I would ask a psychologist to help me understand why it is hard and how best to go about it. I talked to Silvia and Josep from Psicoterapia Esparraguera, and asked them a couple of questions (podcast is in spanish). Here is what I learned.

The meaning given to errors matters

It is true. We don’t like making mistakes. It is frustrating for everybody.

But most importantly, making a mistake means different things for different people. For example someone who constructs his/her identity very much on the basis of a professional role (eg. I’m a manager, I’m a doctor) is likely to interpret a professional mistake as a big invalidation of his/her identity. And someone who thinks that “he is a good guy that helps others” will find it difficult to accept a mistake that has negative consequences on other people.

Similarly, groups or organizations where errors are heavily punished or criticized will make people fear exclusion or even losing their job.

Look at what making a specific error means for YOU.

Diligence is slow

When we fear, we typically try to avoid making mistakes by being very self-demanding. We push the idea of error to the back of your minds as if we could ensure that it wouldn’t happen. Rigour works, but it has two main problems:

  1. Error will eventually occur, no matter how well we try to avoid it. And when it does, we will want to be ready to face it.
  2. Diligence is a slow path to success. Think of a kid learning to play an instrument. He can focus on learning all the theory first, or on trying to play from day one as he learns step by step. The more we focus on perfectionism, the less we will be able to focus on other drivers such as love, curiosity or excitement that are in fact much faster paths to success.

Curiosity and love for others are more efficient drivers for success.

Organizations can improve how they deal with error

If we accept that error will eventually be there, it is important to know how to deal with it. Here are 6 tips on how to go about it:

  1. Communicate explicitly that your organization tolerates mistakes. But at the same time, be clear on the scope of error that is acceptable, so that people can feel comfortable taking some risks.
  2. Focus on the learning process. Include the possibility of errors in your workflow and make sure you learn from each one of them. Always doing a postmortem meeting after a problem is a great way to ensure that everyone is focused on finding solutions during the crisis and that they have an opportunity afterwards to think about how to prevent it in the future.
  3. Lower the cost of mistakes.  Having people review the work of others, for example, will allow them to be more creative while managing the risk of sometimes getting it wrong.
  4. Promote assertive communication and create occasions for teams to talk about problems and opportunities for improvement.
  5. Build teams of 7 to 8 people to ensure that you get different opinions in a team but that you make it easy for them to communicate.
  6. Always talk about the error, not the person.

It’s an equilibrium

Like any important change, the process of integrating error in a workflow should be done little by little. Start with something small like a weekly retrospective or a one day hackathon. Then look to implement bigger challenges like the team size or other structural changes.

At the end of the day, we are facing a dilemma:

  • We want innovation and creativity, error being part of the deal. But we don’t want the error per se.
  • And we want diligence, rigour and stability . But we don’t want to be slow and monotonous.

So it’s not about choosing between the one or the other, nor is it about radical changes. If you’re not entirely happy with your current situation and you’d like to be more creative, it’s all about trying some new things step by step, seeing how you improve the way you handle error and risk, until you are happy with a new equilibrium.

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