Man On Fire

Act Fast, Fail Fast, Learn Fast? Science says we learn faster when we are free to choose.

A recent study in Scientific American showed that people learn faster when they are free to choose which action they make, even if the choice initially leads to a negative outcome.

The concept, “choice-confirmation bias,” produces “stabler learning over a wide range of simulated conditions than unbiased (no choice) did.” Researchers also believe that choice-confirmation bias primes the brain to learn the outcomes of chosen actions, “which likely represent what is most important to a given person.”

Perhaps no field moves more quickly than disruption. With failure—which is not only an expected outcome but a foregone conclusion of disruptive work—learning as quickly as you act and fail gives your team a competitive advantage. 

And, like the participants in that study, when you disrupt you make choices to see what works (reward) and what doesn’t (punishment) and adjust accordingly. So it’s logical that empowering your team to make autonomous choices about the outcome of their work will help them learn faster and better. 

How then can you empower your team to learn fast? You must influence their perception of control. Yes, they should also have control (more on that later). But even more important is that your team feels it’s in control.

As Philip Corlett explained in the Scientific American article, “Feeling as though you are the architect of the outcomes you experience is powerful and certainly would lead you to strengthen beliefs about those contingencies much more strongly.”

In fact, an internal locus of control is linked to better work performance and higher job satisfaction because people believe that they can make things happen for themselves. This factor is especially true for entrepreneurs and disruptive thinkers.

But you can’t bullsh*t this sense of control. You actually have to give control to your team and reinforce their ownership. Here’s how:

1. Listen to their ideas and feedback.

In a fast-paced, disruptive environment, action precedes conversation. But if you want your team to feel important, you must prioritize what they have to tell you. Not only will this increase their sense of ownership, but it will also help reinforce what they are learning along the way. 

Make listening an intentional practice. It must be more than “always keeping the lines of communication open,” because you’ve sprinted enough to know that that tactic won’t materialize into any communication.

Prioritize time with your team and team leads weekly (or daily, depending on your speed!) to understand what they’re discovering and iterating, and help them to connect their actions to their outcomes.

Reinforce their proximity to the end users’ feedback, and then demonstrate you’re putting the insights from their work into action.

2. Empower them.

Can I be honest? Nothing sucks more than when your boss gives you the power and responsibility without also giving you the vision, tools, expertise, and autonomy you need to achieve their desired outcomes. Am I right? 

All the responsibility and none of the authority is not control, and it’s not power. It’s a burden.

Andrew Wittman of the Mental Toughness Training Center believes that an agreed-upon “charter” outlining expectations for each team member, including the leader, is key. This agreement should lay out basic expectations such as hours worked, respect for others, and conflict resolution, as well as expectations about collaboration, outcomes, and feedback.

Transparent expectations enable team members to hold themselves, their teammates, and (yes) you accountable, and they create a sense of ownership for everyone involved.

3. Share the purpose with them.

“But why?” is a perfectly valid question both for a three-year old and for your employees who want to know the purpose behind what you’re asking them to do. 

Purpose cultivates engagement and passion for the work, and answering “why” forces you to focus on the true problem your team is trying to solve.

4. Demonstrate the impact of their work.

In a fast, fail-forward environment, it’s easy to move on to the next exciting or urgent challenge you face. So build in time to recognize your team’s work before moving on. 

Measure their impact in terms of both learning and results, and connect their actions to rewards (or consequences). What they learn through the outcomes of their decisions they will internalize to solve next week’s problem.

5. Back them up.

Did you ever have that camp friend who said everyone was meeting at the lake at midnight to skinny dip, but then you discovered that they told everyone else only about the meeting-at-the-lake part?

That’s how your team feels when you give them ownership only to leave them alone and exposed. 

Be the one who runs and gets a towel for your teammate, who supports their decisions even when they fail, and who treats their mistakes as an opportunity for learning—fast.

Your team wants to meet you at the lake—and in the winner’s circle. Helping them learn fast will show them the way.