Creating a Mistake-making Policy
Integrity isn’t perfection, its better.
During a hospital stay a nurse turned off and neglected to turn on my pneumatic leg pumps. (Devices designed to help prevent blood clots in the legs of trauma patients. Hospital staff called them SCUDS)
She removed them about 3 a.m. so I could get up. When I returned, she put them back on but didn’t hit the switch. We were talking; neither of us notices. She left; I fell asleep.
About 6 a.m. another nurse came in to check on me. I was awake when she noticed the SCUDS. She hit the switch and left.
About 6:30 a.m. a forgetful nurse came to my bed and said, “I messed up when I forgot to turn on your SCUDS. I’m sorry.”
It’s sad when people ignore or cover their mistakes. “Perfect” people can’t be trusted.
On my team:
My forgetful nurse was qualified and experienced. I was never in peril. My activity level made the SCUDS precautionary.
If I ever need a nurse and I hope I don’t, I’ll ask for the forgetful one.
Dumb leaders sacrifice mistake-makers. Creating sacrificial lambs:
- Invites disloyalty and dishonesty.
- Stalls risk taking.
- Stagnates ideation.
- Honors ignorance.
Smart leaders maximize mistakes and honor integrity.
Stop hiding mistakes; publicize them – especially your own. Uncovering the dirty secret of mistake-making creates rich invigorating environments where:
- Backstabbers and liars run.
- Employees trust each other.
- Customers trust you.
- What ifs are possible.
- Freedom empowers.
Wasting mistakes makes mistakes worse. If you can’t make a good mistake, you can’t be trusted.
Great organizations figure out how to be wrong in the right way.
What does a useful mistake-making policy look like?
More on mistakes: I asked Jack Welch about a tipping point in his life and he told me about blowing up a factory. “How Blowing up a Factory Changed Jack Welch”
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When I kick-off a new project I light-heartedly nominate a “Blame Fairy” – a trusted colleague that knows how I work. I say to the new team “From now on, everything that goes wrong on this project is Fred’s fault. So get over it already. Now let’s get on with making lots of great mistakes”
It works. It undercuts any temptation of a blame culture right from the start.
I love this, Mimi! I used to blame my older brother for everything (like World War II and global warming and stuff), but then he found out I was doing it and didn’t find it as hilarious as I did.
Designing a “Blame Fairy” into a creative process who has full knowledge of the game is a brilliant and fun idea. Thanks for it!
Kerry Packer, a well known deceased Australian businessman was asked if he was going to sack a manager who cost him a few million dollars in losses through a mistake.
“Sack him, why on earth would I sack him, I just spent millions training him” …came his reply – “but if he can’t learn from his mistake, and does the same thing again, then I will sack him.”
Love it. It’s going in the file, thanks, Craig.
I’ve read the same story attributed to T. J. Watson, founder of IBM.
I hope you’re recovery is going well!
This is a great follow up to a talk I recently had with my teens about embracing and acknowledging when we make mistakes. About accepting the consequences of choices and actions, and then figuring out what to do about them when they fall short, not try to cover them up. About how just because I need to get on to them, doesn’t somehow point out that they aren’t good enough, but instead presents an opportunity to notice something and get better at something. That integrity is far more important than hiding a mistake, which isn’t as big a deal and they seem to think it is. A “mistake maker” is a much better badge than a liar or a blamer. And a valuable one at that. “Mistake makers” figure things out.
Julia, your discussion with your kids is great parenting. True learning is always accompanied by mistakes – you don’t fully understand until you find the points of failure – and we should expect that as our kids learn, especially in the teen years when we’re teaching choice-making as much as skills, that they will make mistakes. The trick is in creating that safe environment to fail. I blogged on that once; I should try dig that out of the archives.
Thanks Greg! I’d love to read it!
Dan, you’re making a critically important point today. When I took over our liquid plant we were plagued by batch rejections we couldn’t explain, and therefore couldn’t avoid in the future, because of a toxic blame-and-punishment environment. It took a couple of years to create an environment where paint-makers now come forward if they even think they might have made a mistake. We know a lot more about our process now, and retention rates and therefore experience levels are up. And it’s more fun to work here.
If you want that kind of environment, it’s important to recognize that your disapproval is also a form of punishment. School yourself to take bad news calmly and focus on solutions. Even one moment of anger or frustration can be enough for employees to avoid a repeat.
Oh, and say “Thank you.” Yeah, they’ll be shocked the first few times it happens, but once they believe you’re genuinely glad they told you, and see how much knowing what happened helps, information will flow.
“Perfect is the enemy of great.” That’s because the last few degrees of improvement needed for perfection will grind you to a halt, and focus you on the wrong things.
Greg your last paragraph strikes a nerve with me. The paralysis implicit in your comment is real and can be devastating. It is a good reminder that our goal should not be perfection just getting better every time. Love the quote “Perfect is the enemy of great.” one for the quote book.
Geez Greg, culture change in two years, you are setting a dang high bar. Seriously, way to go! Typically takes 3-5+ years. I bet early on people kept waiting for the sword to fall, but by your modeling it didn’t. .
Doc, believing that culture change only happens if you clearly communicate one simple thing over and over, here’s what mine was: “What and Now What.” What happened, what do we do about it. Forbidden: Who, When, Why.
I love “What and Now What”! Thanks!
Hi Dan, great topic.
First off let’s start by agreeing that perfection in the true sense of the word does not exist and the lack of that ideal is precisely what fuels our eternal need for growth which in my mind is a great thing. As has been written and I paraphrase: ” Show me a person that is perfect and I will show you someone who has never accomplished anything.” The travesty of mistakes lies in the dominance our ego holds. Owning an adverse event makes it part of you for future reference. Admitting an error liberates you to venture forward. The second nurse missed a golden opportunity on three different fronts. First she ignored the window to apologize in the moment. Secondly she clouded the integrity of a good colleague that simply made an “honest” mistake and lastly and most important she shortchanged herself from the joy of kindness and giving which she would have felt had she behaved differently. I have always believed that people intrinsically mean to “get it right.” Yes there are times when acts of commission generate the problem but then dig deeper and more often than not you will find a lost soul in need of counsel and love. Was it not Mother Theresa that said “the worse illness in the world is being unloved and lonely.” The last comment I have is personal and perhaps others can identify with this. Mistakes are usually objective, evident, and discovered but every once in a while a mishap occurs that no one sees other than yourself. If your mind owns it you need to release it to free yourself of the burden by apologizing. How often do we say we are sorry and the other person tells us they did not experience anything distasteful. In those situations I thank them for their kindness and am relieved that the damage was only in my perception which is real until I let it go. If it bothers you, it was a mistake. If it does not perplex you and others tell you so, it is also a mistake. Both require amends for all parties concerned. What a different world it would be if we focused more on the implications of our actions on others and said more often “I am sorry” rather than “that is not my problem.” The closest thing to perfection that exists for me is the love of life and all that it contains and the wonderment of creation with the gratitude to be here. Peace, 🙂
Al, you bring out a couple of great points:
First, almost always, people want to get it right. In other words, the mistake is not an outcome of their bad character. I always coach that if you see remorse in their eyes, all you have to talk about is a solution, because they already understand.
Second, your point about apologies is extremely powerful – they clear your mind, they clear the air between you and the other person, they remove issue as a potential factor in other things.
Thanks, good stuff today.
Al, love the personal comment. Apologies do have a way of freeing us, making us human, more approachable. It also sets the tone for others that its okay to make mistakes, but we need to own them and do what is necessary to make what corrections are necessary (now, or in the future).
Apologies are really powerful when they take place with our children, or with others who perceive themselves as lesser.
Thanks for the addition.
I absolutely agree that true leaders create environment where they expose mistakes and learn from mistakes. Misleaders hide mistakes of self and others. And this practice encourages backbiters, rumor mongers and look-busy kind of people. I also agree that when you publicly expose and criticize mistake; you honor honest, loyal and committed employees. Liars and backstabbers shadow honesty, authenticity and integrity. And this leads to (if not stopped in time) attrition and unethical practices.
Mistake making policy looks like creating flexible policy where people can learn from mistake. They should be rewarded for accepting mistakes. Making mistake is not crime, but making repeated mistake is more serious. When people accept and admit their mistakes, it is actually a healthy sign of good governance and authentic leadership practices.
Ajay, love your use of the word “misleaders” and the various connotations we can take from it. Genius.
Your point about learning from mistakes is important. The Army has an organization called the Center for Lessons Learned. It is charged with documenting so-called “mistakes,” along with the solutions, so that others going into similar situations can read and learn. I have yet to see a business do that effectively.
Corporate America should adopt the Army’s Center for Lessons Learned concept. I agree with your comment thoroughly.
Well said, Dan.
The “perfect” people cannot be trusted and they create an environment where everyone tries to hide their mistakes. And then everyone becomes dis-trustful and un-truthful.
As always, we must model the exemplary behavior that we’d like to see in others. This includes exposing our own imperfections, mistakes and faults.
Thank you once again Dan. This is wonderful and divine knowledge in my ears as it is designed to sets people free. Free to thrive and to shine.
How to make people take responsability and to care? That is the million dollar question.
My main objective is to help people shine. I do this best by watching, listening and admit my mistakes and help people see their own mistakes. BUT FIRST ME! It’s hard but so rewarding. It’s very hard and really demands a lot of courage. A truck load of courage!
Perfect people frighten people and people who show no mercy are Thank you once again Dan. This is wonderful and divine knowledge in my ears as it is designed to sets people free. Free to thrive and to shine.
How to make people take responsability and to care? That is the million dollar question.
My main objective is to help people shine. I do this best by watching, listening and admit my mistakes and help people see their own mistakes. BUT FIRST ME! It’s hard but so rewarding. It’s very hard and really demands a lot of courage.
Perfect people frighten people and people who show no mercy are simply intimidating. There are leadership theories that support the idea that fear is a good motivator. There are Machiavellies out there. They create fear and achieve only short term goals and will fail and create sorrow in the long run. But I have never believed in KITA (kick in the ass). First and formost I believe in trusting people and see them bloom. If nessesary and if people for some reasons do not deliver in time, I have to set spesific goals and deadlines. When people are pushed to set the goals and deadlines themselfs that is the far best way. Then they own the problem and can be creative.
Anne, love your objective, and KITA is now on my whiteboard with a red circle/slash. Thanks.
Sorry for the hiccup in my entry 🙁 …. :))))
And I thought you did it for the blog topic! 😉
We had a ‘tell early and tell often’ in my company (cabinet installation).
I told my guys that they would never get in trouble for admitting a mistake. Hiding it was instant grounds for dismissal.
Because of this policy we never got blamed for anything. Our builders knew that if something was our doing we would have told them.
This policy actually led to very few mistakes. The pressure to be perfect was off their shoulders and they were left to do great work.
Way to go! Thank you for sharing. 🙂 It made me happy!
I was so moved by this post, I have immortalized your words in my graphic quote blog today. (I even used a ROCKWELL font) It has been my own experience that the words “I’m sorry” are incrediblily powerful. Thank you for sharing everyday!
Nicely done, Kim.
Great insight here, again. One of the most important roles of leadership is to make it safe to learn from mistakes. And not the kind of learning that happens when people are blamed and punished. That only leads to ducking and running and the toxicity of making sure it’s “not me”.
Years ago I heard the policy of one company about mistakes. If you screw up: own it (admit what went wrong), learn from it (to minimize that mistake in the future), and share it (let others know what went wrong so they’ll be less likely to make the same mistake).
If employees followed this protocol, they would not be sanctioned.
Dan, this one is a Keeper. This piece rings so true in the arena of injuries. When I worked at DuPont there was a saying we had for employees avoiding being called out on a mistake that led to an injury…”Going home with bloody fingers in their pockets.”
Safety has come a long way in the manufacturing world, but too many managers still play the blame game. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen incident reports being prepared UNTIL someone is found that can be blamed.
Al Diaz mentions errors of commission. I would like to add errors of omission – when an individual or organization fails to do something it should have done – to the discussion. In fact, based on your story, your nurse committed an error of omission.
I have mentioned my mentor and dissertation committee chair, Russ Ackoff, here before. Russ has written extensively on this topic. I invite you to read a short piece he wrote on errors of commission and omission here: http://www.gperform.com/Ackoff_on_Adoption_of__Systems.pdf
Thanks for the post today Dan. It is going to be the theme of my next column.
Jim thank you for the “upgrade” and I thoroughly enjoyed Russ Ackoff’s essay. I now have a very different perspective on the importance of omission errors and their importance. Funny how sometimes the obvious eludes us but that is the fun of learning something new. Cheers, 🙂
Glad you enjoyed the Ackoff piece Al. As Russ Ackoff’s graduate student you cannot imagine the number of times Russ challenged me on my errors of omission, which forced me to reach for a deeper level of learning.
I recall a conversation with Russ on his passion to continuously learn. I asked him what kept him wanting to learn even at 81 years old. He said, “I never fall prey to believing I am as smart as you think I am.” Russ was a very wise man.
Just one word Jim on Mr. Ackoff’s comment. WOW! Humility at its best. Wow.
Thanks for the link, Jim, Good stuff.
As Greg noted, culture change is not an overnight initiative.
Process-wise, a useful mistake-making policy is the foundation that has to be set up well in advance. The opportunities are ripe, even at the policy development stage….communicate that it is in process and have direct service staff be part of the policy creation. Yes, that shifts resources short term, however if you do a ROI, long term benefits will outweigh that short term gap. Each person on the policy development becomes a champion and voice of the policy. A comprehensive policy does take time to birth…hopefully not 9 months.
Provide brief updates on policy development, especially if it is in contrast to an ‘off with their heads’ existing culture-deep seated according to Maslow.
The content of the policy is key and likely is another whole thread. Words that come to mind might be positive unconditional regard, blame free, employee incentive and employee recognition, root cause analysis, 5 whys, FOCUS-PDCA, risk vulnerability assesment, FMEA, et al. (Still making the distinction between malevolent errors, repeated errors w/o learning from them and intentional errors.)
Once the policy is done, celebrate with the creators and appreciate their efforts publicly. At the same time, your communications engine should be ready to shift gears. This is overt and less overt because of the content. Every step you take, every word you say (sorry Police), will reflect whether you are going to truly follow the policy. If you are going to shine a light on errors, then you need to shine a light on yourself in responding to errors. With time, consistency and visibility the new approach can take root.
Doc, props for the Police reference, and you’re exactly right, acceptance of the policy requires completely consistent modeling by leaders.
“if you are going to shine a light on errors you need to shine a light on yourself.” Well said Doc, I love the inclusiveness of the comment. Mistakes may be made by an individual but ownership, resolution, “shining the light” as you mention belong to the team.BTW I forgot to mention this great quote earlier and again don’t remember who said it. “Mistakes are the bridge from experience to wisdom.” or something along those lines. 🙂
When my daughter was 11 (she’s now 28) she came home from school quite troubled. She gnawed on it for awhile before telling me that she had cheated on a math test (looked over on her neighbor’s paper). I asked her what she needed to do. She said she needed to tell the teacher and apologize and take whatever the consequences were. Unfortunately, for her, it was two more days before she could tell the teacher. She came home that night still troubled. “I didn’t tell him every question that I copied (there were 5).” You guessed, it, back to the teacher, more admission, more angst. What a lesson on several levels. The teacher told her that eliminating the 5 questions still wouldn’t change her grade, but the larger lesson that day was not about the choice to cheat. It was about the choice to own it. I’m sure going through the ordeal twice was excruciating. Owning mistakes forces us to face our vulnerability on an extreme level. It also enables us to understand that owning the mistake and our vulnerability is not the end of the world. We actually get stronger and build breadth in our character.
Yes, give me the person who makes mistakes. They show a humility that is good to be around.
Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on this topic, you guys.
Classic Jim, and probably the longest 2 days of her life…thanks for a great example.
Jim what an impressive young lady! Glad you brought the “fragile vulnerability” concept and the hidden strength it creates for us. My hats off to your daughter. Character at that age is surely inspiring.
“A new idea is rarely born like Venus attended by graces.
More commonly it’s modeled of baling wire and acne.
More commonly it wheezes and tips over.”
It’s sad to think how many great ideas have died too young simply because they weren’t perfect. Sadder still to think of all the great thinkers who have been squelched as their scruffy little great ideas got trampled on the road to perfection.
Find the oddballs, draw them in close and allow them to fail brilliantly.
Dan, you need to add a “like” button so we can like the comments too. Cy, I definitely like this one.
This is a biggie! And ironically just this morning I was confronted with this exact situation. I am working on a job with an art director who made a mistake. Instead of acknowledging it and moving on he spent about 2 hours looking for others to blame: Me, the client, the video director — anyone but him. Sadly it’s not the first time. He missed an important lesson somewhere along the way — we are all human. We all make mistakes. They bring with them a great opportunity to learn important lessons. There is no shame in making a mistake — only in refusing to be accountable for them.
Reminds me of a situation when I had an ad agency. We were a small, independent start-up and were thrilled when we landed our first really big client. As part of a project we were working on they asked to handle the sourcing and fulfillment of ‘perks’ of a thank you program they had instituted for their Investment Advisors. It was a huge initiative and definitely well outside the scope of our expertise. My first instinct was to say this was not a core competency and we would be happy to help them source the proper supplier.
The baby suit on the project begged and pleaded with me to take it on. Frankly I’d never seen her this motivated or excited. She got her supervisor on board. With some misgivings I let them convince me.
Forty-eight hours before the perks were to be delivered (across the country, to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of advisors) she had to ‘fess up: The group she had engaged to help source the hundred or so perks had totally fallen down on the job. Nothing had been purchased.
Once I got a handle on what had to be done and we had steps in place I called the client, told her what happened, assured her we would get it done and assured her that we would be absorbing any additional costs.
Instead of laying blame and taking valuable time away from the task at hand, I thanked her for coming forward (albeit a bit late) and we mobilized our entire team. We kept it positive. We joined forces. We divided and conquered. We were a team and we pulled it off. The client was so thrilled she gave us more business.
And after all was said and done the baby suit, her supervisor and I sat down. The conversation was not about what she did wrong — she didn’t need me to tell her about that. What we talked about was what the experience had taught us — and what it taught me personally:
Truth be told, I was the one who made the mistake. My initial instinct was right; and in an effort to recognize her enthusiasm, reward her passion and give her some degree of ‘ownership’ of the project and the client relationship I agreed to something I knew was wrong.
The job was not one of our core competencies. You should always stick to your knitting.
Fran great idea to bring the “wasted time” in searching for culprits when actionable resolution gets postponed.
Man, I hope a lot of bosses read your blog.
Sometimes I get the feeling perfection is a requirement at my job. In that case, I have some bad news, guys.
Dan , great post and thought-provoking discussions as well. I love it. I do want to share something that happened recently in my organization. I put an new employee in charge of running a “live” studio production. It was his first time “at the wheel”. He made what I consider to be minor mistakes. To him they were major mistakes. He was sweating afterwards when he made this comment, “I made some mistakes.” My response to him was, “Did anyone die? Was someone physically hurt?” He grinned and I could see a weight lifted from his shoulders as he responded, “No.” I then asked him,”What will it cause you to do differently next time?” This launched a forward thinking discussion of his performance. The next week, he did not make those rookie mistakes and did the next live production flawlessly.
Great topic and conversation. None of us have a problem admitting that we are far from perfect, but taking the blame when doo-doo hits the fan, that’s the type of person I want to hire, hang out with, and, increasingly, the type of person I want to become.
I’m reminded of when John Maxwell face was on the cover of SUCCESS magazine, followed a couple of weeks later by his mug shot from the local jail! His immediate response and taking full responsibility for his arrest made me trust him more–he’s a very credible felon! (Read his blog about it here: http://tinyurl.com/2fhkjao).
In the end, some of the most inspiring words I can hear coming out of a persons mouth are these: “I was wrong. I apologize. What can I do to make it right?”
Give me the forgetful nurse over a “too proud” caregiver any day of the week.
If one really wants to learn from failures, play golf. The game teaches you integrity, respect, humility, perseverance, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking but most of all the only way to really “get it” is to fail. Through trial and error with some good feedback, skills do develop and change happens.
I encourage leaders to take their teams to the golf course and reap the benefits of turning “failure” into “growth and development”
What does a useful mistake-making policy look like? I read this post earlier today and thought all day about what to say. I suppose a mistake-making policy would have to (possibly) be “layered” – there are some scenarios where a “learning opportunity” mistake, handled correctly, can help the mistake-maker grow and the entire organization be better off in the long run. But in other scenarios, the margin for mistakes is very, very narrow (think, cruise ships following the planned route). I suppose in those situations training needs to be very concentrated and intense during simulations ….. so that in “real life” there is less likelihood of error and more confidence on the part of the employee.
I mentioned this article earlier, but you might check out this piece for some ideas on framing a “mistake-making” policy.
Good leaders allow people to make mistakes (fail) without making them feel like failures.
What you see is what you get… what is perfection is just an another word of egotism…
Very good advice–and the pain, if any, of acknowledging a mistake up front is infinitely less than the pain of a cover up exposed–as Nixon and Clinton and lots of others have learned.
I will be “chewing” on this post for awhile. I agree with your observations. We are paying a price on many levels for being an “either/or” culture that doesn’t leave room for grey. Acknowledging our mistakes has a lot of grey sometimes. I love your insight about perfectionism. Thanks for the clarity of this post!
This is one of best articles I have read so far. Thank you so much.
Thanks for this Dan, especially timely for me with my mom in ICU this week. One of the lines I’ve introduced in my team is the “noble failure.”. We talk about the risks and inevitable mistakes required for innovation. If it was a good idea and it just didn’t work…it’s a noble failure. Now I’ll have to add mistakes to the lexicon. Thanks for the important–sometimes life or death–message about a healthy culture of admitting mistakes.
Hi, I just stumbled across this site as I was searching for advice/clarity. I made a mistake at work. I informed my manager as soon as I did it. There was the potential of breach of confidential information. The item I thought I had lost was found, no information was revealed to anyone, no one was hurt. I apologized, call my manager the minute I found the item. I have been informed that I will be given a letter of expectation. I am struggling with feeling like I am being “the sacrificial lamb”. I am a supervisor and clearly recognize the potential damage that could have occur had I not found the item. Words of advice?
Thanks for sharing your story. Before I say anything, I want to be sure I understand. What is a letter of expectation?