Typically, organizations react in three ways:
- Ignore the mistake and hope it goes away
- Discipline the perpetrator and take corrective action
- Reward the mistake-maker
What’s the best reaction? Obviously, ignoring the mistake is never the answer. Options two and three, however, are both perfectly rational, reasonable, and right.
I recently offered my life approach to mistakes as: If you mess up, ‘fess up. Then offer first a clean-up plan, and then ideas to make sure it never happens again.
In many situations, that is the correct and proper approach. But not always. Well, at least the last part isn’t always true. After all, would we have WD-40 (a true modern miracle) today if the people responsible for creating a new water displacement fluid gave up after formula 3 or 15 or 39? Or what about Post-It Notes? I can’t think of an office today that can function effectively without those little yellow squares. But the glue that makes Post-It Notes possible was a huge mistake. What if the inventor had simply swept his error under the rug and hoped nobody noticed?
Sometimes, mistakes move us forward. Smart businesses (and business leaders) know that.
A recent article in Inc. magazine made this observation:
“Everyone makes mistakes—every entrepreneur, every business leader, every employee. The mark of a great company isn’t that it avoids failures—that’s impossible—but that it has the wisdom to take full advantage of them.”
The article went on to point out “two prime ingredients of a brilliant mistake:”
- Something goes wrong far beyond the range of prior expectation; and
- New insights emerge whose benefits greatly exceed the mistake’s cost.
“The brilliant part lies especially in condition (2), but also in recognizing that (1) is necessary for (2) to occur. You want to increase the chance of (1) and (2) occurring together. When they do, you could have a brilliant mistake on your hands.”
I would add to this two more necessary ingredients:
- A culture in which people are expected to be curious and to pay attention to mistakes – to the “what just happened” moments – and make out of them what they can. The invention of the microwave oven comes to mind. A Raytheon employee was working on radar systems when he noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. His curiosity led him to figure out the microwaves in the radar system had melted his candy without harming him, which eventually led to the appliance most home kitchens are never seen without.
- A commitment to recognize and reward mistakes, not just successes. Most companies prefer to call this strategy “rewarding risk-taking,” not mistakes, but it amounts to the same thing. Think of the profound negative impact on innovation and new product development if employees in your R&D department were only recognized and praised for “achieving results” and not for “risk taking.”
How does your organization and management team typically respond to mistakes? I offer a challenge in today’s post – in 2012, make a commitment to recognizing and praising errors. Look for the “oops” moments and see what positive lessons (or even ground-breaking products) can be created from them. Congratulate those who mess up, but ‘fess up, and then learn from their errors in a constructive way.
As Globoforce’s Head of Strategic Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. His articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.