Fail Fast, Learn Fast, Grow Fast: The Value of Making Mistakes

This article was written by our late mentor, Larry Wilson, Founder of Wilson Learning. To learn more about how Larry inspired our business, read our article The Story Behind Above + Beyond.

How do mistakes play out in the work world, and what has this to do with leadership?

Years ago, I found myself following the speech of the then CEO of AT&T. His speech to his top 500 leaders focused on a single message: “Do it right the first time.” His forceful words never allowed for any exceptions to his mantra that perfection was the only outcome any leader should expect; from themselves or from the folks they were leading. As he left the podium (having received nothing close to a standing ovation), it was my turn to face this confused, unenthusiastic, and potentially hostile audience.

I took a risk. First, I acknowledged the CEO’s passion for wanting people to perform at their best, and then tried to do my best to reduce the communication confusion by saying, “Of course, he meant after you’ve learned to do something perfectly, then for certain continue to do it perfectly every time.”

It may have only been a coincidence that I was never asked to speak again at AT&T.

But this is not about me.  Our subject is about valuing, actually honoring, mistakes as the best and fastest way for anyone to learn anything— essential in a leadership role.

Here’s the gist of this “honoring mistakes” subject: People who lead the best possible lives are those who’ve made the most and varied types of mistakes and learned fastest from their errors.

I co-authored a book with my oldest son, Hersch, called, Play to Win! Choosing Growth Over Fear in Work and in Life.  We defined the opportunity to choose between two opposite responses to the things life brings to us. One response we call Play to Win. The other, and opposite, we call Play Not to Lose.

We defined Play to Win as: going as far as I can with all that I’ve got, and learning from whatever happens.

We define Playing Not to Lose as: avoiding anything or anyone that might in any way hurt, embarrass, or make us uncomfortable.

Which of these attitudes has the best chance of enabling someone to live their best life— a life with more success and fulfillment? The answer is obvious if we’re willing to be objective.

If this is obvious, what stops leaders from willingly choosing growth over fear by Playing to Win? The answer is n the question. They have already chosen fear over growth.

What is their greatest fear? More often than not, they’re fearful of what it is they have to lose, rather than what is that they have to win.

It is important to understand the fear of making mistakes and the high-cost of not making them.

Businesses can no longer afford the high cost of people doing only what they are told to do. People who are only doing their job are not doing their job. It’s everyone’s job to continuously improve their job, starting with leaders, because leaders go first.

Leaders must make a “mindset change” from commanding people to “do what you’re told” to asking people to “do what’s right.” The old control and command, fear-based system of leadership is replaced by a new, trust-based “Developmental Leader” system whereby leaders believe that people are the organization’s greatest competitive advantage— and ultimate differentiator.

This scenario asks people to improve their job. It asks and expects people to do, or try to do, something that they haven’t done before. Don’t expect them to “do it right the first time.” The only thing anyone can do right the first time is to make a mistake!

That’s the thinking that leaders need to adopt so they can support their followers to do likewise. The best way to validate the necessity of making mistakes is to celebrate those mistakes and make sure everyone learns from them.

As a leader, create a positive culture, create an environment of trust, trust the people to bring their best self (their whole self) to work every day. We can all be winners if we learn from mistakes. Especially if we’re courageous enough to share with others what we’ve learned.

As a leader in a changing world, let your mantra be heard: fail fast, learn fast, and grow fast!

Leveraging Larry Wilson’s Play to Win philosophy and methodology, Above + Beyond offers workshops that help your people change how they think, behave and perceive, so they can align how they “show up” more closely with your cultural values and purpose.  For more information on our workshops, click here.