I have a really bad habit when I drive to a new place: I always get lost. I have the directions with me, usually printed out. I’ve looked at them before. Sometimes a co-pilot in the front seat will help me. But at some point in the trip, I will make a wrong turn, by compulsion or impatience. Then I’ll drive around the area for a while until I finally find my way back, and then follow the directions to my intended location.
This usually drives my wife absolutely bonkers and increases the stress level in the car far beyond average family stress levels. Here’s the thing, though: once I’ve made that mistake I can find my way to and from that location without any directions. More than that, I’m usually very good and driving around and recognizing a good part of the local area, the part I was “lost” in. I’ve found that getting lost in driving has given me a pretty darn good feel for the that new location.
I’ve realized too, that getting lost is an important and necessary step in innovation and creativity. I loved this quote from an interview with Liz Gerber who founded Design for America:
“How do you design your classes at Northwestern?
When I first started teaching, my students told me they wanted to learn how to innovate, but were too nervous to take the necessary risks required for innovation. So I made assignments that required them to fail. I told them that if they don’t make mistakes, they aren’t trying hard enough.”
Liz designed her course so that students would get lost intentionally.
The artist Laurie Rosenwald takes a similar approach with her students. She instructs them to design a solution that is as bad as possible. She wants them to do the opposite of what their instincts tell them to do. She even runs a workshop called “How To Make Mistakes on Purpose”. Every participant is sworn to secrecy!
While getting lost and making mistakes is important, you wouldn’t know it from looking at people’s day-to-day workloads. Our supervisors and leaders want us to make as few mistakes as possible. Processes like Six Sigma aim to minimize or eliminate mistakes. Then there are the few leaders who say it’s good to make mistakes but find ways to ostracize the perpetrators anyhow.
One idea to change this could be to create Safe Zones of Failure at work. Call it skunk works if you like, but for an hour or two each day, we shut off our internal and external besserwissers and allow people to get lost. One of the reasons I like doing innovation workshops is that I say up front that there is no right or wrong and build in the “wrong-way exercises.” It gives people permission to screw up. And enjoy it.
So go ahead and get lost for a bit. And bring someone along for the ride.
Photo by Dyaa Eldin Moustafa