What Whiteboards Can Teach You About Failing Faster

When I started a CPA firm years ago I leased space in a mid-rise office building. Every room in our space had big five foot high windows along the exterior wall. One day I picked up a pack of dry erase markers and instantly converted about 30 linear feet of window space into the largest whiteboard I had ever used. I was in love. Over the years clients learned to love the window whiteboards as much as I did. There were a lot of good ideas hatched on those windows. But we had to take pictures of them before it got dark or you couldn’t see what you had put up on the board.

The more I used whiteboards and, importantly, the more I watched others use them I saw how the impermanency of the medium helped people embrace failure, albeit a very specific kind of failure. The whiteboard helped people embrace idea failure. To see the effect impermanency has on a person’s willingness to take risk ask her to brainstorm on a flip chart. Then compare that performance to a second session using a whiteboard. People seem to know that anything they put up on a whiteboard is relatively fleeting compared to the “set-in-stone” flip chart. There is some inate fear that the boss might pull out the old flip chart years down the road to remind you of the ridiculous idea you tossed up during the annual retreat.

There is a lesson in here, and it isn’t that you should replace all of your flip charts with whiteboards. When you are developing strategies and tactics to move your company forward you should be willing to try new things. To encourage trying new things you need to create an environment of impermanency. Because if you hang the success of the company on the success of the next project you are going to encounter a group of terrified, not motivated, participants.

How do you bring the impermanency of a whiteboard to your strategies and tactics? One way is to run trials. Rather than overhaul your purchasing process to increase gross margin maybe you can try a new purchasing procedure for just 30 days. Instead of trashing the hardcopy field manuals maybe you can issue iPads to just two technicians and have them report back after four weeks of use. As an alternative to wholesale pricing revisions you can use the new pricing methodology on all new proposals for two weeks.

The point is this. If your team knows that their neck is only going to be out there for a few weeks they are more likely to stick it out. And you can encourage them to do it more often by showing grace and trumpeting their courage at the end of every trial season.

The maxim “fail faster” has become so cliche few people take it as a serious cultural value. It is cliche because no one goes on to describe how to build systems that help you fail faster. The answer is that you build systems that can also win faster. If there is one problem I see when teams develop new strategies and tactics it is that they don’t specify where the finish line is or they put that line too far out to determine a winner or loser quickly. If you can build your projects and initiatives with a definite, near term finish line you will not only be failing faster, you will also be succeeding faster. Win or lose, your team needs to know where they stand before it becomes painfully obvious that the horse they bet on is going to finish dead last no matter what and there isn’t anyone brave enough to put a bullet in it for them.

There is another way you can encourage impermanency. You can set the table so that the stakes are low enough that no matter what happens the result will not be a game changer. For instance, you can roll out new technology in one department rather than push it out to the whole company. You can send one team on a leadership retreat rather than the whole company. You can change the product mix in one store rather than the entire chain. In a way these are trials too, but they are better suited to programs that might take a long time to measure as successful or not. This is often the case with longer term strategies.

A good example of this longer term perspective is a strategy to acquire new business to hit growth targets. Acquisition has many variables and different industries, even different markets, will have varying success rates when trying to grow this way. It could take a year more to know for certain whether a company’s culture can be transferred over to the employees of the acquired company. It can take a really long time to see if customers in a different culture will buy at the same rate and the same prices as the company’s home country consumers. By starting small you can lessen the anxiety that somone on your team is going to be responsible for the catastrophically expensive failure of a new idea.

These are only two ways that you can foster impermanency to increase the engagement and risk tolerance of your team. I am sure there are others. To find them ask you leaders what is holding them back. Ask them what fears, spoken and unspoken are behind any lack of engagement. And lead by example. Be transparent with your team. Communicate your own fears of failure and how you overcome them to take risks that are key to your company’s long term growth. Explain your own definition of long term and what kinds of short term setbacks you have had to overcome. Finally, do everything you can to fight the Chicken Little response. Poise and an unflappable response in the face of daunting failure will do more to set the tone for your team than anything you will read in a blog post.

As leaders we owe it to our team members to encourage new ideas. They will appreciate the freedom to fail. But words are not enough. We have to do practical things like facilitating trials and scaling down new initiatives to make them more comfortable taking these risks.