The Best Startups Fail Forward – Here’s How They Do It

By encouraging failure and all of the benefits that come from making mistakes, your company can officially become a place of higher learning.

What do potato chips, Post-It Notes, pacemakers, penicillin and Silly Putty all have in common?

They were all created by mistake. In fact, in each case, the inventor was attempting to create something completely different and thought the final product was a failure. 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 reminds me of what Thomas Edison once said about 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.

 

Fail early, fail fast

Failure, mistakes, mishaps — they all play a vital role in helping us learn and grow, too. Unfortunately, however, many businesses penalize mistakes and create risk-averse employees that are 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 their team to make mistakes and see what happens.

 

Create a fail forward company culture
Photo: © GaudiLab, YFS Magazine

 

Failure actually expands your brain

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 its original size after the learning experience, it retains new neural pathways by taking in new information, compiling 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.

 

Why leaders should encourage mistakes

Yes, this might sound crazy at first, but our leadership team embraces this mentality at my company, eLearning Mind. We’ve found that embracing mistakes gives employees the confidence to try new things.

The best marketers continuously test new ideas, figure out what works and apply ideas that stick and drive results. When we apply this approach to business it drives far more innovation and deeper employee happiness through encouraged creativity.

 

Create a fail forward culture

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 company culture can create a safer space where employees feel empowered to try something new.

 

  1. Lead by example

    If employees are to learn that failure is okay, it needs to start with leadership. Organizational leaders must not only demonstrate the importance of trying new solutions, but also be okay 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.

  2. Promote 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 everyone can learn from each other’s successes and failures. For instance, we use Slack (a team collaboration tool) so everyone can share new ideas, see what each department is working on, and understand the company vision at all times.

  3. Encourage “fast failure”

    Let employees know that if they’re going to try something new (and potentially fail) it should be done quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean rapid-fire ideas, but rather trying something new in its skeleton form before moving 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 and the employee can move forward to a different solution quickly.

  4. 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 business won’t 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.

 

This article has been edited.

Simon Casuto is the co-founder and president of eLearning Mind, an interactive creative agency focused on designing education and corporate learning by leveraging ultra-modern design principles combined with science-back neurolearning principles to deliver smart, beautiful and engaging experiences that also deliver results.

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