I enjoy coming to work at Shutterstock. The people I work with are bright, hard working and inspire me to believe that we can build things that make people happy - that’s awesome! The qualities of great co-workers are vast, but a few of my favorites are humility, a willingness to learn and a childlike curiosity (or Shoshin in Zen Buddhism). When we are childlike, there are no dumb questions and no preconceptions that hinder creative problem solving.
This childlike curiosity’s positive effects can be seen amongst high preforming teams. When a team displays Shoshin everyone is working as though it’s day one and no single team member is working off assumptions that aren’t shared amongst the group. This opens up the communication lanes allowing for better collaboration. It also allows for the team members to think holistically. For example, as a developer, it’s OK to have an opinion on the color palette of the design. As an ethnographic researcher, it’s ok to question the quantitative analysis. If you want to create something great, cross pollinated thinking is REQUIRED because it puts the team in a consistent state of learning. Additionally, titles, directives and politics fade into the background and you are left with a group of people working together to solve a problem.
Some of the most successful leaders I have worked with have an uncanny ability to stay in this mindset for long periods of time. Entrepreneurs are forced to think this way when they start a company because when their first approach doesn’t work, they either have to revisit the problem with an open mind or they will go out of business. Good product leaders are like this as well, especially after a few failed product releases under their belt to create the humility required to build something great. I’ve also seen the opposite amongst leaders. Many leaders who have climbed the ladder have achieved their status through a string of successes. However, all too often those successes become a crutch of preconception over time. It takes courage to simply say “I don’t know, but I’ll take steps to learn.”
This type of thinking has permeated technology. Here are a few examples:
* The lean startup methodology embraces the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) because it’s wise for a startup to spend more time building and testing than years trying to perfect a product that may not work. There’s humility and curiosity in this thinking.
* The Agile Manifesto favors “responding to change over following a plan” because the creation of a long term project plan changes a team’s thinking. The team spends time trying to predict the future instead of trying to iterate on the problem at hand. The existence of an overly detailed plan suggests that all the learning has been completed, when in truth, the learning has just begun when you start building.
* SVPG started by experienced technologist Marty Cagan promotes “Product Discovery” or rapid prototyping in short iterations to discover something that is useful to customers. Marty even says more explicitly that you’ll probably need to try 3-5 times before you get it right, so focus on getting those attempts done efficiently.
* Facebook has “Fail Fast” posters all over the office enforcing the notion that failure is just a part of the creative process and encouraging employees to do it often. Facebook knows that failure is akin to learning.
My goal isn’t to add another blog about development processes, but to focus on some of the characteristics of teams working in these positive environments because I hope more organizations work this way - not just technology companies. I’d argue that working in organizations where learning is encouraged, where people ask questions about things that aren’t their specialty, where it’s ok to fail, or even encouraged is required to create greatness.
Let’s take a deeper look at the psychology of accepting failure. A friend of mine told me about a great book by Jonah Lehrer, “How we decide.” In the second chapter, the book reviews research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford who spent decades proving that a great education stems from the ability to learn from mistakes or to “fail often.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:
"(Failure should be embraced in schools) unfortunately, children are taught the exact opposite. Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart). Dweck has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn.”
In Dweck’s most famous test with hundreds of schoolchildren in NYC, Kids were given a relatively easy test in 2 groups. The first group, upon finishing the test successfully were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this.” The other group was praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” The students were then allowed to choose between two subsequent tests, a difficult test and a relatively easy one. 90% of the kids who were praised for their efforts chose the difficult test while almost all of the kids praised for their “intelligence” chose the easy one.
"When we praise children for their intelligence," Dweck wrote, "we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." Dweck’s next few tests proved that the praise of innate intelligence actually inhibits learning. She used a very difficult test for the next round - well above the students grade level. The group who was praised for their innate intelligence struggled and was fast to give up, "Maybe I’m not that smart after all." Meanwhile t he group praised for hard work "got very involved" in the difficult test and outscored the other group while proclaiming unprovoked "this is my favorite test."
Now let’s take a look back at our organizations, teams and leaders. How many people are afraid of failure and inhibiting their own ability to learn? Let’s embrace a culture that encourages people to fail more often, ask any question, try ideas quickly and start the learning. There is no shortcut to creating a great new product, your team is going to have to try a few times until they get it right. Let’s work to build systems that allow teams the flexibility to experiment, practice and learn rapidly, instead of spending months and months debating which idea to try.
I’m lucky to work with people I admire in this respect. Every one of us has moments where we fall into the trap of “knowing everything,” but more often than not, the people I get to problem solve with on a daily basis help me get past that blockage. They have the patience to allow me to learn. Always a student.