My daughter had the good fortune to land an internship in a lab at the university she attends. The principal researcher and her team are working to eradicate HIV. And while I don’t understand much of her day-to-day work, a recent experience my daughter told me about resonated deeply.
She called on her way back to the dorm to excitedly tell me about a mistake she’d made that afternoon. An experiment she was responsible for had not turned out as planned. She was nervous about telling her boss, knowing that supplies were expensive and rework cost valuable time. She readied herself for a tense conversation. But instead of recriminations, my daughter was met with a scientist’s curiosity. Her boss was genuinely interested in understanding what happened. They went over procedures, refined processes, investigated causes and ultimately crafted a new approach.
Beyond scientific advancement, there was profound learning. Reframing failure offered the opportunity for collaboration, deeper connection, enhanced trust and new insights. But these sorts of outcomes aren’t reserved for the rarified air of research labs alone; they’re available to anyone willing to adopt an experimental mindset.
Anatomy of the experimental mindset
The experimental mindsets rests upon a few primary beliefs.
“Getting it right feels good; but it’s from mistakes that improvements and innovations are born.”
History is filled with examples of brilliant failures that were responsible for unexpected breakthroughs. This is an important reminder to everyone in business because in today’s highly competitive environment, making small, incremental changes may not be enough to ensure long-term success.
“There is always an answer, solution or fix.”
This sort of attitude of abundance creates the space and safety required to take risks and make the most of those opportunities when things don’t work out as planned.
“There is no such thing as failure if learning follows.”
When employees and leaders adopt this outlook, it puts mistakes in their proper place – as teachers and tools for advancing knowledge, understanding and capacity. Viewing life in these terms doesn’t let us off the hook when things go wrong; instead, it makes us accountable for mining the mistakes for the learning value.
“Experience is the best and fastest teacher.”
The school of hard knocks can be the most effective and quickest path to new insights. The visceral understanding that’s derived from experiences (both good and bad) can yield the most powerful – albeit concentrated – outcomes.
Making the most of mistakes
You don’t have to be a researcher to leverage failure for learning. It really comes down to just a few key practices that must be incorporated into your daily routine.
Exercise your curiosity muscle.
Curiosity is a gift we give to ourselves and others. It’s a powerful vehicle for enabling mistakes to become insights. And it’s a habit – like any other habit – that must be built through practice. So take a breath and ask, “What can we learn from this?” Withhold judgment and make no assumptions.
Become a master questioner.
Learning from errors generally requires deep reflection. Questions are the currency of reflection and insight; but not just any questions. When things go wrong, it’s natural to go down the path of “why” toward blame. But asking yourself and others questions aimed at genuinely understanding what steps were taken and the effects of those steps creates a safer and more productive space for exchange. Following up with “what if” questions moves the conversation toward positive (and possibly more experimental) action.
Keep a learning log.
Take a page from researchers who document all aspects of their experiments. Invest a few minutes at the end of each day to note key insights and new understandings. Over time, this process will improve the quality of your work, reinforce your learning focus, and build greater confidence in the value of experimentation.
Failure is a natural part of life – both inside and outside of organizations. It’s time to reframe how we approach it. Because when mistakes are carefully examined, they offer golden opportunities for individual learning and organizational improvement. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
Need a little more inspiration?
Here are a few quotes to ignite your experimental nature.
Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.
― Thomas A. Edison
Take chances, make mistakes. That's how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.
― Mary Tyler Moore
Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.
― Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
― George Bernard Shaw
Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.
― Phyllis Theroux
Sometimes the best way to learn a lesson isn't just hearing the words, but putting it into practice by experimenting with it and finding its truth for yourself instead of taking someone else’s word for it.
― A.J. Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar