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  • Writer's pictureMeg Mateer

Feel free to F*@k up!

During my MBA, I learned a lot about technical concepts behind business like supply chain strategy, financial management, business ethics. During my six years in consulting, I learned how to create quality work fast, about working in teams, about managing clients.

But it was not until I got up, moved out of the US and started my own business that I began learning about the emotional work of business: uncertainty and failure.

Beginning a startup forced me out of perfection - it’s impossible to execute all aspects of a new company, new project, new idea without any road blocks. This new way of working was and still is incredibly confronting for me. The “safety only” way of operating, holding onto rough drafts of my ideas close until they are completely fleshed out, or not speaking about a project until I have done all the research, no longer functioned in my new adventure.

Today, it is more than just start up companies whose context urges launching unfinished ideas. As problems get more complex, there is even more a demand for agility and rapid development of innovative ideas. We are collectively realizing the importance of experimentation across all levels of society, which inherently means you are going to fuck up - some of your experiments are going to fail.

How can we begin to encourage ourselves and others to step into this space of the unknown? How can we enter this space where the rewards and breakthroughs can be high but that also comes with a lot of unsafety? This situational uncertainty and unsafety can be charted by team and self safety. If we begin to collectively learn, through experience, that making mistakes is part of the game, not a reason to get out, we can begin to encourage ourselves and others in our organization to “Feel free to fuck up”.

What does a world feeling free to fuck up look like?

It looks like people discussing what is really going on for them in their lives, daring to respond to the question “how are you?” with honesty and humility. It looks like people involving each other in their personal stories, showcasing the times where things were bright but also quite gloomy. It looks like people taking responsibility for mistakes or choices they made without drowning in personal guilt or shame. It looks like people discussing the nuance in their current situation - not just that they have overcome past “fuck ups” but they still are navigating the unknown in their own lives.

What does an organization feeling free to fuck up look like? It looks like teams being vulnerable, speaking to each other about what they are afraid of or unsure of. It looks like less board meetings and more brainstorms, less executive decision making and more organizational trial and error, using the power of data and user feedback. It looks like sharing frequent feedback, where team members develop through acknowledging responsibility for things gone awry and finding ways to improve for the next time.

At Empatiko, we’ve found this simple phrase so important that we build fail friendly opportunities directly into our programs. We are interested in empowering people to trying on new things, to explore new ways of connecting, and to be connected with different people. We believe these experiential learning opportunities help create the emotional shift that enables individuals and companies to flourish in the unknown.

Start with yourself: Find something small / manageable to experiment with in your life. Try to make this like a research project - the main aim of your experiment is to find out information, not to perform well. Therefore, it does not depend so much on “how am I doing?” but “what am I learning?”. If you focus first on what you want to discover in this process, and keep your focus on these insights, it does not matter whether you nailed it your first time (you probably won’t). One year I decided I wanted to learn a foreign language (I learned I need structure and immersion to really rapidly learn, and I still need to nudge myself to speak!). Now I would like to get better at playing guitar and try performing again at open mic nights (I learned that sometimes the hardest part is just opening the instrument case).

But what do these recreational trials have to do with work? Everything. Personal challenges are the playground in which to begin to experiment with trying on new things, making mistakes, realizing that you do or don’t like what you had tried, etc. All without having to really commit, or see things through. These are what we call low risk experiments. The stakes are not that high, so we can begin to practice experimentation and learn, through experience, that failure is not so scary, and that trying new things, even in small ways, can lead to big leaps in behavior.

Acknowledge your demons: “You’ve been working on this project for a year and you still don’t know how to communicate what you are doing?” “You’re a fraud and everyone will figure you out one way or another” “You have a nice dream but you’re too naive to know that it would never be possible”. These nasty statements seem enough to keep us from stepping outside of our safety net, eh? Yes, saying hello to our self-deprecating thoughts or fear-based beliefs is challenging. We may even discover that we have self-deprecating thoughts about our self-deprecating thoughts! However, trying to trudge through experimenting, taking risks, trying new things WHILE avoiding these voices, is counterproductive. We may think by not acknowledging this darker side of our conscious activity that we can avoid it all together. What we cannot see does not exist, right? ;)

When we do not recognize our own demons, when we fail to acknowledge their existence, they exist often with more power on a subconscious level. When we share these thoughts, say hello to them, and share them with others,suddenly they lose their grip on us and it becomes possible to live with them while still moving forward.

Watch others fuck up: sometimes it can be helpful to have some company while you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. These comrades can help nudge you a bit more (perhaps when your demon is telling you to stay in the box!) AND are great resources for exchanging fail stories. Find a friend (or a few) and have everyone take on an experiment in their lives. Make a point to keep each other accountable but also, encourage everyone to share their fuck ups. Despite the fact that we are aware that many people make mistakes, that failure is part of success, etc. we still believe in some way that we are exempt from this experience, or that we can be exempt from this experience through continuous editing. Inspiring quotes about failure can be helpful, but I just don’t think they hit us in the same way as personal story from an admired friend or colleague about “looking so awkward at my first tango lesson”.

Bringing it into the organization: if you are a manager or a team lead, you have the authority to empower the people you work with to try on experiments in the work environment. Again, you may want to start with a low-stakes experiment because, in this initial stage, it's not so much about the outcome of the specific experiment but rather that your teams begin to practice this mindset. For example, empower your team to communicate useful information to each other. Another way to do this, especially if you work in a small team, is to experiment with different processes of working. Maybe your team wants to try having 10 minute standup meetings rather than your weekly hour long check in. This is a low-investment, high-return activity because it also empowers your team to contribute creatively to the company, and to cultivate innovation at all levels of the organization. You also want to make sure that you are encouraging your teammates and colleagues to share their failures - you can start by sharing your own. Talk about the big customer your lost because you tried a new way of pitching and they did not like the approach. You may even discover that this type of team disclosure helps you personally as well.

When sharing your fuck ups, avoid silver linings: One thing I’ve observed is that in a story of failure emerges some sort of success. This is not wrong - in fact, a lot of stories of failure do lead to some success. This is why we are talking about fuck ups in the first place! However, when the aim of the sharing is for people to feel comfortable with making mistakes and trying new things (which inevitably come with fucking up) the emphasis should be on the mistake itself. Why? Because it’s not realistic - success does not always follow failure and, as such, the message we are subtly portraying to people is that the failure in itself was not worth it unless there was some success. We are still perpetuating themes of shame and guilt on the experience of failure. If we were all guaranteed that we would live a life of our wildest dreams if we just took some risks and failed a lot, we’d jump in much more quickly into the ice cold water. Also, when we weave in a successful ending to our fuck up story, one of the most important parts of the failure - the lessons learned - are overshadowed by triumph.

Stop reading: perhaps you are inspired by the idea of trying on something new, making mistakes, sharing your fuck ups? Maybe you would like to get some more tips before starting? DON’T. Try something small today - anything slightly new that brings about some nervous unease. Say hello to a stranger, buy someone a cup of coffee. Skip through the park! Sing in public. And...feel free to fuck up!

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