Making the most of mistakes

When was the last time anyone in your professional work setting said “I made a mistake by doing XYZ. I think I should have done ABC instead”?

In a lot of companies (and the subset, teams), admitting a mistake is one the biggest mistakes you can make. Much better to blame external factors – “the client was being unreasonable”, or “our competition is just bent on undercutting us”. News flash: the nature of the cheetah is to hunt the gazelle, and the nature of the client is to be unreasonable (deep, I know). Your competitors will do everything they can to beat you. Your job is to work around that. Unfortunately, when one shifts responsibility to a nebulous third party like “the client” or “the competition”, they don’t just avoid personal liability in the short term – it is a missed learning opportunity, and will come back to bite you down the road.

Everyone makes mistakes. Whether it’s a salesperson that misjudged a client’s needs and blew the pitch, or a VC partner who decided to invest before understanding the market well enough – mistakes happen. If you’re doing anything worth doing, you will make the occasional error in judgement. Or two. Since you cannot avoid all mistakes all the time, may as well make the most of each as it comes.

Given this reality, there are two options: cover things up, or own your shit. In reality, mistakes are rarely covered up – news always leaks. So you can either let the talk devolve to gossip-fueled whispers, or take your errors head on and come out with something new learned.

I was introduced to this way of thinking by a wise old member of my family. It seemed so new at the time, I remember the incident vividly after ~10 years in spite of my poor memory (do you have this thing too where you forget lots of things but one off incidents stay as clear as yesterday?) “My bad” is very powerful if said upfront. By owning your shit, you are i) showing your manager you know what a mistake looks like ii) taking responsibility, and showing that you can & want to own the fix iii) asking for help where you need it, instead of compounding one mistake with 3 more iv) not giving anyone an opportunity to judge you behind your back. All in all, you come out of the experience with a lower chance of repeating the same mistake again.

Any mistake is a good mistake the first time it happens and a shit mistake if repeated. This is not new, and most of us recognize this instinctively – but we try to prevent repeating the mistake ourselves. There’s another angle to this: an error made by any person in a team is an opportunity for every person in the team to avoid it in the future.

So how do you maximize team growth from individual errors? It comes down to what behavior is rewarded by the people in charge. The next time shit happens, recognize why it happened – and who could have done what differently. Not to lay blame, or point fingers or indulge in Littlefinger-type politics. Don’t penalize first-time mistakes too harshly. Instead, reward behavior that aligns to this: i) recognized mistake ii) came up with a plan to salvage the situation iii) made a plan to prevent repeating mistakes in the future. As a manager, lead by example – admit something that you could have done better. In situations like this, the group starts talking after the first person has opened up.

Doctors operate at higher stakes than most other workers. Not only that, the results of their actions are observable clearly (either the patient gets better, or not). The margin for error is often tiny. As a result, a closed-door “mortality & morbidity meeting” is an established practice at teaching hospitals – patients who died in the last month are discussed – what happened, were there any preventable errors, what could have been done differently. The point is for every member of the group to learn from an open discussion of other members’ errors.

Here’s what I propose: conduct a periodic “mortality meeting” with your team. The point is to have an open, honest discussion about preventable errors – what happened, why, and what could have been done differently.  By encouraging an open, honest discussion, you’re i) helping the individual learn ii) helping the team learn from every person’s experiences iii) building trust within the group iv) leaving no room for passing judgment behind someone’s back – everything is out in the open.

Mistakes are good. They can seem like a short term personal liability, but can be used as a long-term group asset. Make mistakes, but make sure you’re using Sirf Excel.


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