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.

When you 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.

Unless 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.

One CEO 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.

If you 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:

    • What lessons can we learn from our mistakes?

    • How can we recover most effectively from this?

    • Why didn’t we get the result we wanted?

    • What could we do, trying again, to achieve the result we want?

    • Did a new opportunity emerge from the effort, different from what we sought but even better?

    • How can we apply that lesson to future projects?

The 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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