What does it mean to have a safe place to work? What does it mean to provide a culture where it is safe to fail?
I hear these terms alot, but usually they are not backed up by specific actions. It’s more of a wish, like “we should not be a bureaucracy” or “we should be equal opportunity.” Without specific actions and policies, you will end up with an unsafe bureaucratic place controlled by white men.
Earlier today, I thought of the exact moment when a safe environment is created. It’s when you decide to throw something away and go in a different direction. At that moment, are you (as a group) angry or excited?
If you are annoyed that you are “throwing away work” or “wasted all that time”, then you are sending a clear signal to the group. “Never make a mistake! Don’t experiment! Don’t waste time!” Why would anyone try an idea that may or may not work if this is the way failure is treated. Everyone will slow down and be risk-averse.
I am always excited when we throw things away. It means we can make new choices that are better than old ones. It means we can do it better than before especially with the experience of the previous efforts. Failure is eliminating a poor choice and identifying other better ones. This also sends a clear signal, “Trying is worth trying. Make mistakes if it might be good, we will get experience either way!”
I obviously love when people try something and succeed, but I also love when people try something and learn (despite the effort failing).
Sometimes I produce a design and then realize it needs to be changed because of some mistake. There are engineers I work with who say, “Awesome, this is much better!” and then just do the re-work. Other engineers get mad at me and say, “Why didn’t you figure this out before?”
The moment when change happens, that is the moment to create a safe workplace. Think about the last time you changed course. What was the vibe?