The Wisdom of a Mistake

(image via Brianna Santellan)

(image via Brianna Santellan)

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -Samuel Beckett

Mistakes? We all make them. If you're not making mistakes, chances are you are not growing and developing. If you're not growing and developing, then chances are you are shrinking. Personally or organizationally there is a word for this. We call it dying. Mistakes are actually a sign of life and vitality. The secret is not whether you make mistakes; it's whether you make smart mistakes. A client calls this "Failing on purpose"--making mistakes in service of one's mission. It has also been called "failing forward".

The issue is not whether we make mistakes, it's the response. That is what we do after the mistake occurs. Is it one of honest assessment or hiding through blame-shifting and obfuscation? Are we direct with our ownership or do we move into collapse, drama or justification? Whatever the reaction, the intention is to deflect ownership, and that lack of admittance is generally based in one thing--fear. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of loss of standing or status. Fear of consequence or punishment. 

Fear, of course, is an emotional quality neither conducive for creativity nor sustainable growth. It is stultifying and limits the ability to respond proactively, instead creating an environment of reactivity, protection and self-interest. Fear pollutes even the best of intentions, limits thinking and saps energy. A fearful organization like an individual is generally not good. In short bursts for survival? Yes. But over time, fear's one purpose, biologically and psychically, is to constrict. This won't work for creative growth. Fear's impact limits the ability to respond thoughtfully and with full accountability. A local farmer said it best, "Don't scare the chickens. They'll stop laying the eggs!"

The goal is to move from "perfection" to "excellence". This was well-defined by anthropologist Angeles Arrien. "Perfection", she said, "doesn't tolerate mistakes. Excellence incorporates them." Mistakes are OK, as long as they have purpose and are on purpose. 

One way an organization can do this is to follow three rules. It's important that all three be valued and used, and that leaders are impeccable in modeling what they are asking of their people. Without this modeling, and careful hand holding for at least one year, a fear-based approach will generally tend to seep back in. Fear is a powerful unconscious force in this world, based on ancient, genetic survival. Fight-flight is a real thing. To shift it's potential grip requires vigilance, risk and above all, courage. 

Here are three rules for creating a culture that uses mistakes effectively.

Rule #1: Always report a mistake in it's entirety, as soon as you can. Own it fully, without "prettying it up" or excessive self-flagellation. The goal is to honestly, and completely bring to light this mistake. A client calls this non-emotional assessment, the "honest autopsy".

Rule #2: Describe in detail your plan to make sure it doesn't happen again. The intention is to make sure you or anyone else doesn’t repeat the mistake. Even the best among us err. Unless it's a life-threatening issue, rarely is anything eternal at stake. It's the repeated pattern of the same error that will deaden the future. Consider Winston Churchill when he said, "Success is going from failure to failure with unrelenting concentration." 

Rule #3: Communicate your mistake and it's learning by teaching it to your peers. This is usually the forgotten rule, but the most essential. Think of a mistake like a college tuition. It's real value is in how learning is passed along, leveraged, and inevitably used. The price paid is the error, but it's positive impact can only be fully realized if shared among peers and others. 

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery," wrote James Joyce. A great culture knows this, values the learning that can occur, and encourages failure on purpose.

CoachingDavid Baum