By Andrew McConnell, Co-Founder and CEO of Rented.
When I started my first company, everything was worth exploring. Like a newborn baby, every aspect of the company, my role and this business world was brand new. I had a curiosity, and even a necessity, to learn everything from scratch. Just as a child has to learn to walk and talk for the first time, we also have to learn how to talk about our company and decide what the “walk” of our company should be.
As I grew older and gained more experience as a founder, and as my company became more established in our industry, that newness began to wear off. We learned things. We knew things now that we didn’t know before. Unfortunately, we started to get set in our ways.
And so, it was with a worrying frequency that new employees would come in and share their “new” ideas. That was not the worrying part — surely their exuberance was a good thing. What was worrying was how we — and, more importantly, how I — responded to these ideas. “We already tried that,” I often heard people reply and even said myself. “It didn’t work.”
At the time, we thought this was a good way of dealing with these sorts of suggestions. Surely revisiting ground we had already covered would be a waste of time. Surely we needed to move on. We now knew the answer to that particular question, so it was time to ask and investigate new questions entirely.
There is some merit and logic to all of this. However, I also learned it was a terrible way to respond to new employee exuberance and a bad way to operate as a company for four main reasons.
The First Reason
First, such a response to an honest suggestion was demoralizing to our team members, especially to new team members. When someone comes in with so much energy and excitement and a desire to help the company improve, telling them their ideas are not only unoriginal but also failures before they have had the opportunity to fully explain and test them out is a wet blanket of the worst kind. At best, they decide such a company and culture is not for them and move on. At worst, they conform to the company’s groupthink and everyone, including them, is more intellectually impoverished as a result.
The Second Reason
The second reason this kind of response was so unhelpful and detrimental is that it failed to dig deeper into exactly what we had already “tried,” as well as why exactly it “failed” that first time around. Did we try it in the same way this person was proposing? Did it fail because we didn’t have the right tools and materials at the time, but perhaps now we do? The same idea could still be worth testing and pursuing if we were going to do so in a new way.
The Third Reason
The third reason this response missed out on the potential upside was that it failed to acknowledge that we had undoubtedly changed as a company since the last time we “tried that.” We now were bigger and more experienced. We had new team members with new capabilities. We had built new technology, products and services, and had brought them to market. The “us” who tried the idea in the past was not the “us” of today. Would trying it now lead to a different result? We had no way of knowing without at least trying.
The Fourth Reason
Finally, the response failed to acknowledge that the world around us was constantly changing. Even within our industry alone, every single day there were new developments, new clients and potential clients launching, as well as new partners and competitors entering the fray. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The river of the world in which our business operated was constantly flowing and changing, just like our company. What we had tried and failed in testing in the past might be informative for today, even if it’s not necessarily decisive.
Realizing this helped me personally, and as a company we were able to achieve what Adam Grant in his book Think Again calls the “joy of being wrong.” For so long we had focused on why we were “right” in our failed attempts at trying new things. But at the end of the day, what is more joyful than realizing you’re wrong about something not working or not being good for your business when it actually is?
Being wrong never felt so good.