How To Shift To A “Test And Fail” Mentality

August 18, 2023By Views

By Dave Wendland, for Forbes Agency Council, as appeared on

Imagine yourself at the top of a black diamond ski hill with the tips of your skis hovering precariously over the edge. You have two choices: You can doubt yourself and your abilities and remain frozen in place, or you can trust yourself and lean forward.

I think you can apply this scenario to nearly every business and life decision. It is human nature to be challenged to overcome self-doubt and then conjure up the courage to forge ahead. As William Shakespeare suggested, “Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.”

During a recent executive event for the retail drug industry, I was encouraged by the lack of conversations about supply chain woes, labor shortages and competitive disadvantages — which were hot topics at last year’s conference. Instead, many of the discussions were forward-looking, optimistic and encouraging. In fact, I was struck by the number of retailers and manufacturers alike adopting a “test and fail” mentality versus the more arduous and calculated “test and learn” one.

What do I mean by “test and fail”? Well, it isn’t truly a desire by organizations to approach a new idea or creative direction with the intent of failure. Rather, it is a mindset shift that says: “I’m willing to fall a few times along this journey in order to pick myself up, learn on the fly and ultimately reach the goal. And if the circumstances become unbearable or untenable, I reserve the right to shift gears and try some new direction.” I guarantee you that skiing from the top of the hill will lead to potential wipeouts and adjustments—but the exhilaration you feel on the slope and the reward you get at the bottom of that run will be worth the lessons learned along the way. And, most assuredly, you will be changed.

Stretch Your Mind
You can apply the “test and fail” mindset when using your imagination to uncover new ideas. One of my favorite quotes is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who stated, “Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.”

Our own company put this mindset into practice some time ago. A former client from the pharmaceutical industry approached us and asked whether we would be interested in processing patient-level information to fuel a prescription compliance program. We were hesitant at first because it required significant training, investment in new systems and a venture into patient-specific details protected by HIPAA regulations. But we elected to point the tips of the skis down the mountainside and trusted our organization to recover quickly if we hit some icy patches. Not only were we able to create new systems to deliver this service, but we also established some new processing procedures that continue to benefit us to this day.

Celebrate Failure
This reminds me of a popular and much-touted TED Talk from 2016. Astro Teller, head of X (formerly Google X) — the secretive research center within Google — discussed the importance of celebrating failure as a means to discovering “moonshots.” The engineers working as part of this group do not focus on incremental innovation, but rather big breakthrough ideas. Do they fail? Yes. Do they recover and overcome? Undoubtedly. As Teller suggested elsewhere, their goal is “to learn as fast as we can, to fail as fast as we can.” Teller ends his TED Talk with this simple charge, “We can create the future that’s in our dreams.”

Reward Creative Thinking And Discovery
Within your own operation, encourage an environment that rewards creative thinking and an attitude of discovery. There is a marked difference between being daring and being risky, but I believe that without a willingness to step outside our comfort zone and try something new, we become idle. Self-doubt can be paralyzing. It causes us to question our decisions, limit our creativity and stifle our growth.

To quote legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So do something about it today. And have the courage and fortitude to take the leap.