I'm a recovering perfectionist.

I used to hate getting things wrong at work and would do anything I possibly could to protect myself from being thought of as anything less than excellent.

And I'd beat myself up for days when I got things ‘wrong’.

Thankfully those days of self-criticism and self-doubt are long behind me.

And yet, it's still quite a surprise to find myself thriving on the idea of ‘getting things wrong’ at the start of designing a new service or product.

What do I mean when I talk about getting things wrong early? I mean testing out a product or service at an early stage and after each stage of development (before you’ve ploughed a lot of money into it) learning what the design faults are and rectifying them.

Because being wrong early on means that you can find an easy fix - you can change direction without having ploughed a lot of time, effort and money into designing something that is not fit for purpose, yet is too late to change.

And there are so many examples of poorly designed products and services - I’m sure you can think of examples (and if you can’t, just google ‘‘poor design’ and you’ll be met with reams of examples of what I'm talking about!).

Some that spring to my mind are:

  • Plugs that take up too much room and spill over onto multiple plug sockets
  • Automatic gas/electric meter readers that don’t work half the time and, if you transfer to another energy supplier, are thrown away as they’re not transferable between companies
  • Toilets that use up litres of water to flush which is unsustainable for the environment

And the list goes on!

So hopefully if you were sceptical with ‘failing early’ when you started reading this article, you can see that it's a worthwhile thing to do.

But it's also hard.

It’s hard because most of us like order and getting things wrong means searching for criticism and looking for our idea to be pulled apart and put them back together (and repeat!).

It’s hard because traditionally local government (and workplaces in general) have relied on ‘experts’ or the most senior staff to take decisions, but getting things wrong means giving power to other people to say how our services and products should be designed - especially those who don’t hold any ‘power’ - members of the public or our front line staff who know how things work in practice.

It’s hard because embracing failure feels uncomfortable and uncertain, and as humans we are wired to seek stability and safety.

It’s hard because a lot of our reputation is based on ‘getting things right first time’, when this approach is about ‘getting things right by first learning what is wrong with our approach’.

So what conditions do we need to thrive if we want to find out what’s wrong at the earliest possible moment?

Here are my thoughts:

I read recently in an article how we ask the most questions as children and, as we grow older, our propensity for asking questions and being curious diminishes.

But to fail happy, we need a child-like curiosity, which can emerge if we simply ask more questions.

Asking ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘What would we do if we were working at Google/if we were residents/if we were someone living in Africa?’ can be really helpful for stepping away from wanting to get things right straight away and moving into being curious.

Ability to deal with stress
I run a programme for managers at Adur & Worthing Councils about how to hold great 1:1 conversations with the people they manage, and the backbone of the programme focuses on the importance of creating a ‘safe space’ in order for people to be receptive to challenging conversations and able to grapple with difficult issues.

I see similarities with the conditions we need when we’re trying to get things wrong early - something that can feel so counterintuitive and dangerous.

And some quick tips we talk about in the course are:

  1. Breathing - several deep breaths in and out when you’re feeling stressed can stop you going into ‘fight or flight’ mode and enable you to stick with uncertainty.
  2. Naming what’s going on - saying something like ‘I’m noticing that I’m getting stressed at the thought of not getting this right on the first go’ enables us to live with the stress a lot more.
  3. Trust - building trusting relationships with those we are working with allows us to stick with uncertainty a lot more than when we don’t have these relationships.

Practise, practise, practise
It can first feel really wrong to fail early, but it gets a lot easier the more you try and the more you see first hand that it enables you to get better results in the long-run.

In reality, I’m fairly new to SameRoom, so I’m sure that I’ll have other insights to share along the way about how it feels to fail early and what benefits it brings and I’d love to hear any insights or thoughts you have about it too.