“Experiments and Play”

During an unrelated directory search on my computer, I stumbled across some essays I had written in the early 1990s while commuting to my job at AlliedSignal Aerospace. One was titled, “Experiments and Play.”

I was struck by the congruence with the  Adaptive Change Cycle.   It illustrates several powerful  properties of complex adaptive systems. One of those is their continuously emerging and changing nature. Another is that a critical component of adapting to those continuous changes are rapid cycles of learning.

I share that 1993 essay here for your amusement and reflection.

 “Experiments and Play”

“It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.”

“You’re encouraged to take risks here.”

These comments, and  others like them, are prevalent in the organizations I have dealt with in my professional career.  They are difficult to argue with.  They are consistent with most companies’ public value statements and “common sense.”

With all of these things going for it, one would think that organizations would be engaged in encouraging “smart” mistakes, learning lots of lessons, and proactively taking risks.  Is that the case in your organization?  It certainly is true in those that I have been involved with.  In fact, I notice just the opposite!  Organizations are structured to be averse to risk, and people go to great lengths to “cover their asses” (CYA).

Why is this so?  What can be done to increase the level of risk taking and mistake making in organizations?  I’d like to begin the discussion by advancing some of my thoughts about these two questions.

I suggest that a significant issue is the emotional reaction we have to the words risk and mistake.  “Pavlov’s dog” developed a learned, ultimately subconscious response to a particular stimulus.  Think back to your early childhood years.  How were mistakes treated?  For me, they were negative — it meant that I had gotten the “wrong” answer and that I was going to get a bad grade.  Similarly, my first associations with the word risk were also negative.  “You have no business taking such foolish risks — you could be hurt.”  Just as Pavlov’s dog came to associate the ringing of a bell with food, I believe many of us have come to unconsciously associate the words risk and mistake with negative consequences.

A complementary perspective comes from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).  One tenet of that theory is that certain visual or auditory stimuli can induce a particular “state” – a combination of physiological, psychological, and emotional cues and behaviors that we define or interpret in particular ways.  For example, many of us would define the “state” of shoulders slumped forward, slack muscles, eyes pointed down, and a slow-paced, monotone voice as a depressed.  This “state” can sometimes be induced by introducing a particular stimulus that was present at the time we were in such a condition.  Using the above example, if I were in the “state” mentioned above, and someone said,  “You poor baby,” then it is very possible that the next time someone said,  “You poor baby,” I would begin to have the same feelings and induce the same “state” as I had at the time I was depressed.  When I think of the physiology and the emotions that are evoked when I hear the words mistake or risk, I believe the same sort of dynamic is at work.

“So what?”  you might ask.  My hypothesis is that most people never hear the second half of the, “It’s okay to take risks or make mistakes — as long as you learn from them”  phrase.  We invoke the psychological mechanisms described above as soon as we hear the word risk or mistake and go into a psychological “fetal” position.

To the extent this is true, the question becomes what to do about it?  One approach would be to “desensitize” or “de-link”  the words from the negative emotions associated with them.  My hunch is that this would be difficult to do.  We have years and years of  programming established at a time in our lives when we were especially susceptible.

A second strategy is to make ourselves aware that the programming exists.  Through that awareness, we may be able to discipline ourselves to look past the words and continue to listen and take a different set of actions. This should work – though it is easier said than done.

The third strategy,  (and my favorite) is to not use those words any more!  I propose using experiment and play instead.  Each term reinforces a more positive set of associations and “states.”  Let me begin by building the case for experiments.

Experiment conjures up images of high school science class, where we were taught the “scientific method.”  As part of that teaching, we were taught that an experiment began with a “null hypothesis” of  “no difference.”  The experiment assumed that the variables we would change would not have any significant difference on the outcome of the thing we were observing.  Results that we eventually obtained were always expressed in terms of a probability.  How unlikely was it that the results we got could have happened by chance, and were really just  “no difference” in disguise?

As I think about it now, several important subliminal messages were embedded in that methodology.  First, an experiment can’t fail!  It either proves the null hypothesis or disproves it — with some reservations.  That leads to the second message: you can never be totally sure of your findings.  The fact that experimental results are summarized in terms of probabilities reinforces that we can’t ever have perfect knowledge; that the environment or other factors might change.  That thought extends to the third implication.  The results of one experiment may lead to more questions than answers — and therefore another experiment.  “Let’s see if we can make it happen again” is legitimate, well respected, scientific process.

I have started inviting groups to experiment, hoping that they have some or all of the same kinds of associations with that term that I described earlier.  The same kind of thought process holds true when I ask groups to play.

For me, play evokes strong associations with childhood, innocence, curiosity, and fun.  I don’t remember being graded on my play and only rarely being told that I “didn’t play by the rules.”  Peter Senge and others have advanced the cause of the “learning organization,” sharing the idea that the members of organizations must constantly strive to increase the frequency, quality, and range of their interactions with each other and their external environment.

So rather than warn organizations that it is okay to make mistakes and learn, or to encourage organizations to take sensible risks, I believe it will be much more productive in both the short and long terms to invite people to experiment and play.  We will reinforce the messages of trying and learning and fun and inquiry without the negative loading of our traditional word choices.

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