To progress in complex environments, experiment

I was talking to my wife tonight about a discovery I’ll call the “Mistake Bank Manifesto” which I’ll post about later. The upshot of what I was saying is that the folks who wrote the Mistake Bank Manifesto (I named it, others created it) asserted that learning from mistakes, while exceptionally useful to senior leadership teams, is often highly unnatural for very successful leaders.

I disagree, said my wife. Most of the successful people I know are very good students of failure.

So I faced a conundrum. The experts from Harvard and the Hay Group said one thing, my wife (the Vice President of Common Sense) said the opposite. So I thought on it a moment. Then: aha!

I said, successful entrepreneurs tend to be students of failure. But those who rise through a corporate hierarchy don’t confront failures often (usually the results of corporate initiatives are ambiguous at best, and invariably termed successes of some sort), so for them learning from failure is unnatural. That’s what the book was saying.

OK, I’ll agree with that, said the VP of Common Sense.

This is an exceptionally long prelude to a post today from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge (Shawn Callahan at Anecdote has already posted a thoughtful reaction to this post) on “Coherence and Uncertainty” or, as I interpreted it, when the outcome is uncertain, try something to aim you toward your objective–in other words, experiment. (Dave calls these safe-fail probes.)

Experiments are probably worthwhile, according to Dave, when they are “coherent” (or consistent with what has happened or could happen), relatively cheap, and will provide useful learning even if they don’t succeed.

Which brings me back to the entrepreneur/corporate question. Entrepreneurs tend to have an objective, may be willing to use many different ways to reach it–but in the service of some coherent vision. Experimentation is natural for them. They usually don’t have much money. They are resilient. And they hunger to learn. Safe-fail for them is a way of life.

Corporate types? Well, no. The whole safe-fail approach is alien to the corporate environment. Heard the phrase “paralysis by analysis”? If you work in a large company you’ll hear it weekly. Creating the environment for creative experimentation will require a cultural shift in how companies view their workers and vice versa.

Who’s ready to get started?

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