Embrace Mistakes So
Your Organization Can Thrive
By Marsha Lindquist
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.
Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
– Scott Adams, cartoonist, The Dilbert Principle
Business is more a creative art than a science. Unfortunately, such
an idea frightens many executives and managers. As a result, they
hold onto the notion that there are only two ways to do things: the
right way and the wrong way—the way that leads to glory and success
and the mistake that brings failure and shame. No one wants to seem
as if they don’t know what they’re doing, and in a leadership role,
the pressure to be right 100% of the time feels even greater.
As children, although we’re taught that “accidents happen,” and to
try, try again, we’re also taught that mistakes are something we
have to “pay for,” and we rarely hear stories of any good coming
from efforts that go wrong. Though inevitable, mistakes don’t have
to be “fatal.” In fact, making mistakes, and allowing your people to
make them, can generate amazing, positive results.
simply change your perception of mistakes, you can see any undesired
result in a positive light. For example, Thomas Edison, who famously
failed many times before his world-changing successes, believed
there were no such things as mistakes, only eliminated options
that brought him one step closer to his goal. “There is no such
thing as failure,” he claimed, “only lessons to be learned.”
With the following tips, you can encourage a culture in your
organization that values the good that can come from exploring
all options with a mind open to the possibilities that you might
ordinarily dismiss as mistakes.
Change your perspective. Mistakes made during
creative problem-solving or idea-generation are, of course,
different than costly, harmful errors that result from carelessness
or incompetence. However, allowing a problem to continue and waiting
for a “perfect” solution to appear in order to avoid a mistake is
never a good idea, because you still have a problem! Try to see
that, in creative problem-solving, there’s no such thing as a
screw-up. Wider latitude allows creative minds to reach for new
heights and come up with some amazing ideas.
you’re consistently receiving nothing back from problem-solving
employees but new and different flops and potentially damaging
failures, consider the virtue in their bold action instead of
over-thinking, analyzing a problem to death, and spinning their
wheels in inaction. They’re charging in, exploring, and
taking risks, not wasting time mulling it over and finding new ways
to cover their behinds.
Model it. Take risks yourself. Great thinkers,
inventors, and entrepreneurs know that many mistakes almost always
precede a great success. Albert Einstein said, “A person who never
made a mistake never tried anything new.” Allow yourself and your
employees to make mistakes. Model risk-taking behavior to others in
the organization, and they’ll follow suit.
made an unintentionally offensive remark in the course of
presentation. When he saw the reaction of his audience, he realized
his mistake and was able to recover with a humorous,
self-deprecating reassurance that cleared the air and restored his
personal credibility. Sharing the story of this incident with his
senior management, he modeled the value of personal accountability
and the idea that mistakes need not be fatal. He showed them how to
look at themselves in a similar situation and turn a potential
negative into a positive.
Form a Mistake of the Month Club. Make light of
some mistakes. To help create a culture in which mistakes are no
longer considered the end of the world, hand out monthly humorous
awards to your people (and yourself) for boneheaded moves. Make it a
matter of prestige to be in the club’s good company, rather than a
source of humiliation. Wait an appropriate amount of time—perhaps a
month or so—after the mistake occurs so that the recipient has some
perspective on the incident and is amused without feeling ridiculed.
Also consider for membership those who were able to turn mistakes
from an embarrassment into something positive, or at least something
that everyone can laugh about now.
Reward innovation. Ross Perot said, “Punishing
honest mistakes stifles creativity. I want people moving and shaking
the earth, and they’re going to make mistakes.” Organizations need
to take chances in order to move forward. An overly cautious or
punitive corporate culture will ultimately suffer in numerous ways
from its “safer for now” approach. So consider mistakes to be
innovations, and rather than punish talented problem-solvers, let
them give it another shot. If they’ve learned from their mistake,
they have new insights and have eliminated at least one failed
option, so they are more likely to succeed in subsequent efforts.
Reward employees’ persistence, rather than ridiculing their
failures. Nurture their ideas, instead of rejecting whatever
solutions don’t seem safe or conventional.
Explore many facets. There are an infinite
number of possibilities, approaches, or solutions in most
situations. Open your mind and tap into your employees’ creativity
to explore ALL the options. In a brainstorming session, break a
large group into smaller groups to generate ideas, and then
implement the top three of the many, rather than just one. Assign
teams to each option, and you not only encourage healthy
competition, but you also empower your people, and you stand to
generate two or even three great solutions to the problem.
act on as many viable ideas as possible, more of your
problem-solvers will feel validated, as if they “won,” instead of
just those who supported the one chosen idea. Also, you’re ready
when Solution #1 doesn’t work—you don’t need to go back to the
drawing board—or when a new, similar problem arises.
Remember, though, that you want all contributors to feel heard. So
be sure to explain to those whose ideas were not used that they
might be used in the future, and that they’re welcome to continue
to contribute ideas for future projects.
Sweep and save what’s on the cutting room floor.
Originality and creativity are the natural results of an environment
that permits and encourages mistakes in the context of
problem-solving. After brainstorming sessions, those ideas that you
reject and do not implement may turn out to be, at some point, the
most forward-thinking sort of ingenuity that will bring your company
forward. If you need a new idea about how to do something, for
example, and the team agrees to choose just one of the many ideas
generated, the stuff on the cutting room floor may very well become
an idea you get behind next year, or that you’ll find out is too
avant-garde for today but that might work three years from now when
the technology or the customer base is ready for it.
Be a Monday morning quarterback. Chuck Jones,
the brilliant creator of Bugs Bunny and other beloved Looney Tunes
characters, said, “It’s the stumblings that let us know what we’re
really looking for.” Mistakes can be a learning experience, so don’t
forget to look at the positive. Review the efforts of those in your
organization who took risks and turned out well, rather than only
focusing on a mistake’s doomsday potential.
Ask questions after the
effort has been made:
lessons can we learn from our mistakes?
can we recover most effectively from this?
didn’t we get the result we wanted?
could we do, trying again, to achieve the result we want?
new opportunity emerge from the effort, different from what we
sought but even better?
can we apply that lesson to future projects?
Best Mistake You Ever Made: Great innovations can emerge from
creative problem-solving that explores many options in any situation
and encourages forward–thinking creative minds to try to implement
even far-fetched ideas. When you stop fearing mistakes, and even
introduce humor into the process, you’ll learn that the effort is
often more important than the end result. Among the many rewards for
your organization will be a supportive atmosphere of teamwork, in
which you and your people no longer fear mistakes but fearlessly try
your best in any circumstance.
Read other articles and learn more
about Marsha Lindquist.
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