This article was initially published on Forbes.com.
One topic I often find myself discussing these days is learning by doing. Cultures that value continuous improvement encourage experimentation. They also encourage people to fail fast so they can learn fast. But this idea is scary to those working in cultures who believe that failure is not an option.
Recognizing the fear of failure
It’s obvious that the faster you try something, the faster you learn from it. Experiments are a way to give yourself permission to try new things. The challenge is that this way of learning is counterintuitive for many.
Have you ever noticed that some people would rather talk about a problem forever instead of trying anything? This is what’s called “analysis paralysis”, and many teams suffer from it.
Let me guess, you’re a manager and you refuse to let your team fail all the time. “It will get too expensive!” There are two beliefs embedded in this statement:
- You don’t think your team will ever learn anything from their failures.
- You think experiments are random and unproductive.
However, did you ever stop to ask yourself: “What is failure?” The word itself causes a lot of discomfort and fear when it shouldn’t.
Think about the video games you’ve downloaded on your mobile device. How do many of them operate? An initial version of a game comes out the door and people play it. A week or two later, they release another version of the game with more features and updates.
Was the first version a failure? Maybe, but in most cases, it wasn’t! The publisher began to learn how people played the game. What did users like and what did they not like? What was missing from the game? They then make adjustments to existing features or add new ones to the next release.
So ask yourself, what would be your focus for that first release? Would it be to focus on making the initial version a smashing success or would it be to focus on what you could learn from releasing it? There is a big difference between the two.
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Structuring experiments that work
It takes practice to put in place this new mindset of focusing on learning rather than failure. One easy way of doing this is to document your experiments in order to better keep track of them.
The biggest challenge with experimentation is that many experiments have no structure, meaning people are less likely to follow up on them and learn from them. You need to provide your team a bit of structure to allow their experiments to deliver more value.
Here are three questions that will allow you to better design your experiments:
- What is the experiment? Keep things short and simple. When describing the experiment, do it in no more than two or three short sentences.
- What are you trying to learn? Answer this in no more than three to five bullet points. Each bullet should be a simple question you are trying to answer as part of the experiment. Phrase each of them as an open-ended question instead of a yes/no question.
- How long is the experiment going to last? Keep the length of your experiment as short as possible. Experiments should take hours or days at most so you can review what you are learning and adapt fast.
Keeping track of your experiments
The key to effective experimentation is pulling out the lessons you can glean on a regular basis. This will allow you to adapt and design new experiments based on these facts.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself either at the end of an experiment or (if it’s longer) during it:
- What happened? Keep the data factual. Use bullet points and form short sentences.
- What did you learn? Go over each of the initial questions that covered what you wanted to learn. Then, identify what you actually learned, using bullet points. Again, remember to remain factual.
- What is the next experiment? Review all the information and identify how to adapt. Create another experiment if you need to and track it the same way.
Remember that you do not want to wait until the end of a long experiment to review your learnings. You should review them on a regular basis, as it’s being conducted. This will allow you to make continuous adjustments to get the most out of your experiment.
The best way to learn is by being in action. Instead of debating and looking for perfection, encourage your team to take that first step. To help your team adopt a mindset of experimentation and learning by doing, you need to do it yourself!
Remember that change is a never-ending continuum. A mindset of continuous learning will allow your team to become more resilient. Change should never be a side project, teams should work to integrate it into their daily routine.
How do you encourage your team to learn by doing? How effective are experiments in your organization?