Why Simply “Allowing” Mistakes is a Dead-end for Agile Companies

BY Alexandre Gabadou ON NOVEMBER 13, 2018

Managing culture can quickly become one of the most complex challenges for companies that seek to scale agile practices. If self-organization and continuous improvement aren’t already tricky enough in a team of 10 individuals, they represent a daunting challenge when teams grow to the hundreds (not mentioning companies of thousands of people).

Scaling agile practices[1] in a company requires strong cultural foundations, as you build understanding and trust, between – and within – teams. Culture requires time to build, even longer to take shape, and as long to change. However, a strong and ubiquitous company culture will naturally reduce frictions and dissonance, and instill ambition at every level of execution. To quote Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Success – the Historically Dominant Culture – as the Driver of Merit

If culture is the cornerstone of agile companies, it’s also what can make agile fail, especially when it pertains to how companies value success and failure.

The dominant corporate culture has historically been geared towards perfection. Those who rise through the ranks are often those who have made the fewest mistakes – or have been able to showcase their successes the best. On the contrary, a person who has failed multiple times is either ignored and overlooked, or plain and simple shown the door. In the long run, though, valuing success – by that we mean only success – will seriously damage business performance, and more so in times that are prone to uncertainty.

Take a company that punishes failure. Employees and executives will inevitably resort to truth distortion and vanity metrics (biased, partial, self-promoting metrics). Similarly, politicking arises in such contexts, as you aim for a mistake-free career at the expense of others.

The Emergence of the Right to Make Mistakes

Many companies have, in the last decade, acknowledged the crippling effect that a culture of success can have on innovation. They’ve also discovered that through experimentation – trial and error – you can learn faster and innovate more often.

Since Weber’s bureaucratic model, discourse around failure has profoundly evolved, but reaction to new ideas now sounds like this: “Go ahead, take risks, think outside the box. If you fail, we’ll give you another shot, we won’t sanction you.”

Though well-intentioned, this type of discourse only reinforces the negative bias around mistakes. Ultimately, most of us still think like this: “I was told I could fail, but I’d rather be right on the first try.” Such discourse will bring the same results: no – or little – initiative, a dominant culture of success and almost no room for innovation. Today, failing has become tolerated (even legally authorized), but it’s not used as a lever.

Making Mistakes isn’t a Right, it’s Essential

Scaling agile practices in a company requires a cultural shift that puts mistakes at the center of success. Making mistakes should become the daily tool through which everyone in the company learns. In a complex system, ripe with uncertainty, if you’re not able to make mistakes, you won’t be able to succeed either. We try, fail, learn, understand, adjust, try again and find the right solution. Without mistakes, there are no inventions. Failure shouldn’t be a right, it should be compulsory, it should become the means to our ends!

Do not be fooled, the myth of the inventor that builds a revolutionary product on the first try (often pictured in their garage or other exotic locations) is flawed. Trial and error has been the real driver of product innovation, and perhaps more importantly, most of humanity’s inventions, creations and progress.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work Thomas Edison on researching the lightbulb

Enable your fellow colleagues to make as many mistakes as feasible, as fast as possible, and ask them to share their learnings with the company (documentation is key). In such a context, learning will speed up and become collaborative, engagement will rise, talent retention will improve and performance-induced stress will diminish. Making mistakes and sharing learnings also increases the diversity of knowledge in a company, and thus makes it more resilient to changes. The real paradox is that the more mistakes you make, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more successful you become.

Innovation as the Memory Game

A lot of companies think of strategy as a chess game. But, in a complex setting where your levers are unknown, or change often, chess doesn’t do much as a framework. Instead, think of strategy as a memory game.

The Rules: Cards are distributed upside down, each card is part of a pair and your goal is to find all pairs as fast as possible. Each turn you select two cards, and if you find a pair, you select two more, and so on, until all the pairs have been removed from the board.

In the memory game, a good player isn’t someone who is able to find all the pairs on the first round, just as a good product manager isn’t someone who is able to launch the perfect product on their first attempt.

A good player, however, is someone who’s able to learn from their – and their opponents’ – mistakes, through trial and error, and who’s able to figure out the board the fastest. As soon as they’ve figured out the layout, they can then reap the fruits of her learning, just as with product/market fit.

When a member of your team comes to you to present their new idea and their strategy, don’t just allow them to fail. Ask them how they plan to fail as fast as possible, it’ll give you an idea of what they’re planning to learn.

In practice, you could ask them questions such as :

  • What are your uncertainties?
  • What are your hypotheses?
  • How do you plan to test said hypotheses?
  • How will you measure failure, and know how to invalidate your hypotheses?

By asking these questions, you’ll be doing them a favor, and will be laying the foundation for a new agile company culture. Now, imagine if everyone internalized this cultural shift and shared their learnings company-wide. In this new and complex world, you’d be able to rapidly reduce uncertainty and build a powerful and creative company, capable of producing the innovations that will drive tomorrow’s products.


[1] By “scaling agility”, we mean a company where teams self-organize, share organizational models, continuously improve them, and are user/value-centric.

Alexandre Gabadou

About

Alexandre Gabadou

Alexandre is a Product Manager and Growth Manager, working at Frontier. Frontier designs products and services for distributed and agile organisations: Crystal.work, Straw.work, Yolocracy.org.