Making the Most of Mistakes

Written by: Alan Rodway

No one is perfect and neither is any organization. So, mistakes are going to occur, and, in fact, they are a necessary part of improvement. How a business, a team or an individual deal with mistakes is therefore important to success. It is really quite illogical that so many businesses (accidentally or deliberately) promote an anti-mistake approach; that’s counterproductive. Of course, people should not be allowed or encouraged to make mistakes through carelessness, but to have a culture that limits initiative, ideas, resourcefulness and risk-taking are going to limit future success. In some instances, we can’t have one without the other. The way we define mistakes is critical to how we live them out. If they are all seen as bad and to be avoided, then people will try fewer ways to improve.

So, here are some keys to making the most of mistakes:

  • First and most important, there must be a properly designed and communicated platform for dealing with mistakes. The platform must have several components:
    • Acknowledgement that mistakes are going to occur, even with all best effort from everyone involved. Without this being acknowledged reality is being ignored.
    • Recognition that initiative, ideas, resourcefulness and empowerment are all important aspects of improvement.
    • Making mistakes, whilst not desirable, should not, of itself, incur recrimination.
    • Everyone must do everything in their power to avoid making ‘big’ mistakes, whatever that means for the particular business or industry.
    • Agreed approaches need to be in place for when mistakes occur (incorporating some of the points below).
    • Running a business is risky in itself and taking calculated risks is a necessary part of that.
  • The cause of each mistake must be identified as being either positive or negative, for example:

Positive:

  • A new approach being tried that didn’t work (the first time).
  • A new idea that didn’t work or that will take time to work.
  • Timeliness demanded an attempt be made that didn’t work.

Negative:

  • A lack of skill or knowledge (not necessarily negative but needing remedying)
  • Poor resourcing (physical resources or lack of time).
  • Carelessness.
  • A poor system or lack of a system.
  • Remedial action will need to be taken for each negatively caused mistake, but a different approach should be taken for the positively caused mistakes, e.g. encouragement of initiative that was taken but with counsel around how it was carried out.
  • It has to be clear for each mistake who is responsible for any rectification that’s needed from the impacts of the mistake. This may be the person who made the mistake, another team member, or a more qualified person for the situation.
  • Identification of people making the most mistakes is necessary. That’s not harsh for people making the most negatively caused mistakes; it should be helpful to them and the business. For people making the most positively caused mistakes it’s really a matter of guidance on the ‘how’ but encouragement to keep trying. Google is known to ‘reward’ people for making mistakes if it represents initiative or trying something that could lead to improvement.
  • Mistakes need to be dealt with swiftly. If they have been negatively caused they are likely to recur. If this doesn’t happen and it can cause unease in the way people involved are feeling.

Some other comments about mistakes:

  • One of the most important aspects of leadership is to demonstrate one’s own vulnerability. Owning up to mistakes, taking responsibility and learning from them sets an important example to others.
  • People who stay in comfort zones are probably less likely to make mistakes although strong and successful businesses are not built on comfort zones.
  • We often say in business that the biggest risk is not taking any … mistakes are a necessary part of improvement. Key people in business must have the courage to recognize mistakes for what they are, especially if they have been positively caused.
  • Failure is feedback and the same has to be said of mistakes.

Thomas Edison conducted 10,000 experiments before he invented the light bulb and 17,000 experiments before he invented latex (rubber). Were all of his failed attempts along the way mistakes? He is quoted as saying “I’ve not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. He’s also quoted as saying “ Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” .

Mahatma Gandhi believed that “freedom isn’t worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”

So, create an environment where mistakes have a context that will enable longer-term improvement; not one where they should be avoided at all times.

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