Approximate reading time: 3.8 minutes

We all make mistakes and I just returned one of them. Somebody recommended a business book which I ordered from Amazon and found it seriously wanting. Amazon of course makes it amazingly easy to admit a mistake and returning something to them is almost therapeutic.

Mistakes are what human beings are about. We live by mistakes and sometimes of course die by them. Mistakes though, are the only real way we learn and develop and attempts to avoid them are akin to saying “let’s not learn.”

You can begin to judge the effectiveness of an organisation by how it responds to mistakes by its employees. If the culture is punitive then you know right away this is not a truly learning organisation, that is, one that knows it must tolerate mistakes in order to find out how to succeed.

For despite countless publications, seminars, and pronouncements from gurus of various kinds, there are no sure “rules of success” in business. In fact, if you have ever started a company you will know that you spend much of the time trying to discover “the rules” only to gradually realise there are none that are immutable, apart perhaps from the simplistic one that eventually you have to bring in more money than you pay out.

[Opps! That immutable rule just fell over with the latest public offering from Ocado. Here is a company that has never apparently made a profit and yet it has managed to stick around far longer than conventional business logic would suggest is possible.]

One sure thing about mistakes though, is that as soon as you start blaming someone else or the universe for them you distance yourself from any real learning. As Robert Preston points out in his blog summarising the BP report on the Gulf Oil spill, its report in effect says no one thing caused the spill but if anyone can be blamed it is the contractors to BP.

The reality of course is that if BP had exercised sufficient care it would have reduced the chances of such a disaster happening. Put more simply, BP seems in danger of not really learning from its mistakes.

The whole point of getting things wrong is not to keep doing it, but to learn and next time get it right. In other words we need to make mistakes in order to remember the right way. Children for example, learn much faster when they are allowed to first screw up.

Business leaders are usually good at claiming “we don’t have a blame culture here” when of course that is exactly what they have! The issue for HR professionals is what to do about such cultures since while they are not hard to spot; they are much harder to alter.

Not all mistakes of course carry the same weight and you can classify them in various ways. There are stupid ones, like insulting the boss or, knocking coffee all over your work colleague’s papers and so on.

Then there are simple mistakes that are avoidable but happen because of a sequence of decisions that made them inevitable. You forget to renew your travel ticket, or the team meeting is cancelled when it was not really necessary through a misunderstanding over dates.

Involved mistakes are ones are understandable but require an effort to prevent such as arriving late at a meeting  with your chief executive, or putting out the wrong statistics because your failed to check them before sending them out.

Finally, there are complex mistakes that have complicated causes that may not have a simple explanation and may not easily be avoided next time. For example, attrition rates are high and keep rising, or team members do not get on with each other despite developmental input and so on.

Whatever the classification, the fact is that fear of making mistakes remains deeply ingrained in our psyche. Early on in our education most of us are told that good students don’t make mistakes and at home our mistakes often attract negative comments and sometimes worse.

Yet there is growing evidence that innovation flourishes when people are given the space to make mistakes.  In fact, as Ghandi put it in his usual succinct way:  “freedom isn’t worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”

Since mistakes are how we learn we might expect companies to be strong supporters of making mistakes but this is seldom the case. Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies is surely a notable exception when he argues in The Miracle of Making Mistakes: “I feel we should institutionalise the art of making mistakes; introduce a method for the madness; and innovate the innovation process.”

In asking “Do you have the nerve to encourage mistakes that people will inevitably make on the path to discovery?” Nayar challenges both other CEOs and HR to re-think their attitude towards mistakes.

Extensive research on creative geniuses apparently found that the most successful creators tend to be those with the most failures. Mistakes then are a route to success. The old IBM adage that “to double your successes simply double your failures” continues to resonate today and we need to accept that the experience of being wrong is not merely necessary, it helps make us better with richer lives.

Five mistakes people make about mistakes

1)    Mistakes are always bad and should be avoided

2)    Mistakes should rightly make us feel depressed and regretful

3)    Mistakes have nothing to do with our imagination

4)    Mistakes or failure “are not an option”

5)    Mistakes should be forgiven and forgotten, (they should be forgiven and remembered)

See also: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schultz published by Portobello, 2010


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