I always start with this question when companies ask me to help them build a culture of innovation.
Mistakes are a necessary component of change. However, most organizations don’t have a clear ‘policy’ on how they deal with mistakes. I’m not talking about rules or regulations but an explicit approach to encourage people to take more risks.
Historically, mistakes equaled to incompetency. The message was: “If you commit a mistake, you will be fired.” Though that implicit threat is still present, more leaders now realize that mistakes are a crucial component of learning and development.
Celebrating mistakes has become, not only accepted but cool. A company where errors are given a place of honor is considered modern and innovative. The problem is that we are rapidly shifting from a culture of fear to one of zero accountability.
Teams should be encouraged to make mistakes. But errors are a means to an end, not the goal. Mistakes are not what we must celebrate; what we learn from them are.
Why companies are afraid of mistakes
“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde
Most companies still have a hard time accepting that employees are human. They expect their teams to be flawless. That operate with a perfectionist mindset; they make plans and then expect things to go as anticipated. But reality never meets expectations.
To succeed in a fast-changing world, adaptability to the uncertain and experimentation are critical. Teams that can learn and adapt fast to what the real world throws at them, thrive. And that requires making mistakes.
The same happens with the ‘rightness mindset.’ “This is the way we do things here” is a perfect testament to that. Some companies operate under the belief that there’s only one correct way to do things — it’s seeing the world through a right or wrong lens. Thus, becoming clueless.
Pulitzer awardee Kathryn Schulz coined the term “Error Blind” to explain how (most people) don’t have a clue to know they are wrong about something until it’s too late. In addition to that, the wrongologist explains how our relationship with mistakes is embedded in our culture since we were kids.
In elementary school, we are taught that failing is associated to dumbs. As we grow up, we reinforce the notion that people that make mistakes are a failure. That’s why we focus our energy into NOT making errors ourselves. If you are a failure, you will be fired.
When you accept imperfection as natural, you are better prepared to deal with mistakes. Organizations must let go of the rightness and perfectionist mindsets, and embrace a learning mind.
Removing the fear of making mistakes will encourage your team to learn from them. Not to hide when something goes wrong.
The unspoken rules of mistakes
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” — Richard Branson
How organizations approach mistakes is a guessing game. When there’s lack of clarity or transparency, people will create their own assumptions. Unspoken rules shape your team behaviors, as I explained here.
Here are some of the most common unwritten rules on errors:
The more afraid people feel about making errors, the more they will make.
Fear of being punished encourages people to hide their mistakes.
When people don’t admit making an error, solving it will become more expensive once you find out.
Companies that are error blind are not just acting on denial but missing valuable learning opportunities.
Organizations’ double standards about mistakes erode trust (people know better).
In the end, mistakes are part of our human nature. They will happen regardless, so you’d better embrace them as a tool to improve your game.
You need to have an explicit error policy. Not processes or rules but rather a point of view. What’s your company’s perspective on errors? What should be celebrated and what not? What is it allowed and what will be punished? The policy should include the why and how.
Reframe Mistakes as Learning
“Admitting your mistakes makes you humble. But not repeating your mistakes makes you clever.” — Sarvesh Jain
Mistakes are learning opportunities. There’s a thin line between celebrating mistakes and what you learn from them. Don’t let making a mistake become the new excuse. It can easily lower the bar. Incorporating more adaptive and flexible behaviors doesn’t remove accountability. On the contrary, the more space teams are given for experimentation, the more they need to own their responsibility.
I’ll say it again: encourage your team to make more mistakes, but celebrate what they’ve learned not just the error.
Not all errors are equal; it’s a big miss to put them all in the same box. Check out five ways to turn mistakes in your favor.
1. Mistakes as Self-development
These are the lessons that will help your team members grow both as individuals as well as professionals. What has the person discovered about himself/ herself? What would they do differently next time?
Turning a mistake into a self-development lesson might require some coaching. But avoid being too directive. Too much oversight can backfire. Encourage self-reflection instead. People don’t want to be told how to change; learning is a personal journey.
It’s okay to make mistakes, but if the same person repeats the same mistake over and over; she/ he is not learning — you have a problem.
2. Mistakes as discovery
Most great innovations happened unexpectedly, not necessarily in an innovation workshop. Discovery means finding something unexpected or unknown.
In 1948, Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer George de Mestral went hiking in the woods. Back at his home, he noticed the burrs that clung to his clothes. After studying a burr under a microscope, he wondered if its tiny hooks could be used in commercial application. That’s how Velcro was invented. Discovery is not just serendipity but being open to acknowledging the unexpected. You have to see the opportunity behind the mistake materialize.
3. Mistakes as empathy
When something doesn’t go as planned, it reveals a lot about people’s emotions and mindsets. Mistakes are an invitation to walk in someone else’s shoes. You can uncover a lot about your team, customers, partners, leaders, etc.
United Airlines recently tried to replace its performance incentive with a lottery system that would give away big prizes. Faced with backlash from employees, the company had to pause the initiative. Mistakes like this clearly show the gap between management and their team. But they are also an excellent opportunity for learning more about people’s needs and wants. And to make sure you won’t repeat the same error.
4. Mistakes as a red light
Errors can be an indicator of something that’s not working. Many times is not the person’s fault but a system or process that’s broken. Mistakes are a wake-up call. If something is wrong, how can it be fixed or improved?
Remember what happened to VW: the Environmental Agency discovered the car manufacturer was cheating emissions test in the U.S. Mistakes like this uncover bad cultural behaviors that were purposefully hidden. We are all clueless of what’s wrong until mistakes catch our attention. Are you listening?
5. Mistakes as part of experimentation
Innovation requires a trial and error approach. Experimenting requires to test, learn, adjust, and iterate.
The Amazon Web Services platform was initially launched for internal needs. An unexpected visit from a couple of engineers sparked the “what if we turn it into a revenue-generating services?” question. Building on a robust internal infrastructure, AWS become one of the first and most profitable Amazon services. Currently, a $17.4 billion revenue business.
Jeff Bezos said: “Failure and invention are inseparable twins.” You can’t have learnings without mistakes and the other way around.
Reframe what your team should celebrate
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates
Mistakes don’t equal to failure. But not learning from them is a huge loss.
To thrive in uncertainty , experimentation and innovation are a must. And there’s no invention without failure. Mistakes are a necessary stop, not the final destination.
Embrace mistakes as part of the innovation journey. Define clear rules of what role errors play in your company. Innovation is messy, at least have clarity on how the game should be played.
Encourage your team to take risks and make mistakes. Make space to decant and reflect on the learnings. Coach your team not to take errors as personal but as a signal that things can be much better. But, to do so, requires them to embrace a learning mindset not a cover their backs one.
Celebrate the learnings, not the mistakes.
Building a culture of change takes time. And to build the proper conditions so people can play and feel that is safe to try.
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