Courage to Fail pt. 3
Let’s talk about fear. It’s a completely natural human emotion. An emotional response that was given to us to keep us alive and out of situations that were hazardous to our health. In the old days this was a matter of life or death. As a Neanderthal, my fear might have kept me out of a dark cave where a predator laid in wait, prolonging my life. I can think of horror movies where a little more healthy fear would have served the protagonist well. What they heck were they thinking going into the dark basement by themselves anyway?
Today we still have the same basic fear responses, but we tend to apply it in totally different circumstances. For example, I’m not afraid that something is going to eat me. No, I’m afraid that I might not make a good impression on some managers and then I might not get a raise or I might lose my job. While these aren’t pleasant scenario’s they are certainly not life threatening. However, my body’s nervous system has been trained to treat them as such.
The problem with fear is the set of responses that it provokes within us. Our reaction to fear tends to be one of three poor options: Fight, Flight, or Paralysis. These all had value in the old days, but in the corporate environment we have to be wary of them. Even our basest foe in the office is not typically planning to trap and eat us. This means our fear response can lead to some significant overreactions. You’re probably familiar with examples of people who avoid others at work (flight) or bow up their shoulders and try and bully their way to success (fight). I think the most insidious of the responses is paralysis. It represents the person who finds that they are at some kind of risk, but instead of doing anything to mitigate or fix the situation they can be found at their desk, happily ignoring it.
I think one of the most dramatic examples of the paralysis response that I’ve seen comes from the movie Saving Private Ryan. The scene I’m thinking of could be roughly be described as the staircase scene. The translator that was embedded with the company was not a hardened soldier. He was just a normal office worker who had been thrust into the chaos of war. In the scene he was standing on the stairs up to a room where one of his friends was fighting for his life but he was so scared that he could not move, even when the German who won the fight walked past him on the stairs to leave.
That scene has always stood out to me a poignant example of the crippling power of real fear. While our work examples are not as dramatic, they trigger the fear response in us that has the same kind of power. This is why it is important to have the ability to control our fear, to find ways to mitigate it, or more importantly to have courage in the face of our fear. I think the famous quote by Ambrose Redmoon sums it up wonderfully. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
In other worse, I don’t have the time to be a slave to the reactions that fear produces within me. I’ve got things that have to get done and I will control my fear in order to accomplish them.
The Scientific Method
I want to change directions a little bit and offer up a tool that I use to help me accomplish this. In high school science each of us learned about the scientific method. This is a standard procedure that scientists used to try and prove their theories and to learn more about the things they were studying. I’ve found that a stripped down version of the scientific method has helped me to accomplish things that I was afraid of or thought that I couldn’t figure out.
Here’s a picture of the original method:
It’s pretty familiar isn’t it? We do something similar anytime we are trying to learn from our mistakes don’t we?
The first thing we need to realize when we look at this is that there is no shame in testing a theory and finding out that it doesn’t work. We aren’t perfect and sometimes our ideas aren’t successful. The beauty of this model is that it takes a lot of that pressure off and reminds us that we will have another chance to get it right, but in order to improve we are going to need to analyze our last result and see what happened that we didn’t expect.
It is extremely important that we do not tie our self-worth to the success and failure of our ideas. A person who does this is bringing unnecessary pain to themselves. Instead, we need to view our situations objectively. This way, we can open our hearts (and ears) to feedback and not push back when we are hearing something or seeing something that contradicts what we thought we would hear or see
Some of the greatest concepts in the world just don’t work in practice. Look at Communism, it’s a wonderful concept. The idea that we’ll all work hard and pool our resources so that everyone is equal is beautiful. The problem is that it doesn’t take human greed and laziness into account. So when you put it into practice you find people who gain power and twist it to their advantage and you find others who avoid their share of work but still pull from the communal pool of resources. Eventually the system becomes so corrupt that it fails completely. Does that mean that it was a bad idea? Absolutely not, it’s still a beautiful idea, it just didn’t work.
We’re all going to have ideas like that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a new process or a new idea that is going to change the way my job works and cause us to be ultra-successful. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. But I didn’t stop coming up with new ideas and I didn’t stop trying new things. If I did that then what hope would I have that things would get better?
So, let’s say you’ve come up with an idea that you think is a winner. If we make a change in the way that we process transaction X then great things are going to happen. Do you immediately take the idea to the CEO and try and roll it out to the whole company? Not yet, you haven’t done your experiment yet. If you do it without an experiment first then you’re adding unnecessary pressure and fear to the equation. Instead you can do what the television stations do when they want to see if a new TV show has what it takes to be successful, that’s right, you do a pilot.
To see if your idea works the way you think it does you want to identify a small team or teams that can test it out over a specific period of time to prove it out. Don’t forget to put a measurement system in place either; otherwise you aren’t going to know what success looks like. By testing things out with a small team over a limited time you have eliminated the risk of “breaking” something significant and give yourself a chance to analyze and validate the results without a spotlight. This is a wonderful way to eliminate fear.
It’s time to analyze the results of the pilot. This is the point at which we have to have our objective glasses on at 100%. You never really know what you’re going to find when you analyze the results. Maybe things didn’t work because of the environment or a lack of leadership support. Maybe there were technical issues or communications problems. Sometimes you’ll even find that it was a horrible idea to begin with. All of those things are perfectly fine. They give you the information that you need to take back and come up with a new idea. Don’t beat yourself up at this phase in the game. You didn’t break anything major, so figure out what went wrong and come up with a plan to mitigate it and try again.
Eventually you’re going to find the perfect fit, not because you’re the smartest person in the world but because you didn’t give up and you weren’t scared to try. Once you’ve found it and tested it then it’s time to take it to the CEO, roll it out company wide and the get the credit and accolades you deserve. Nobody needs to know how many times you goofed up in the background; all that matters is that you succeeded because you had the courage to fail.