Responsible Mistake-Making: You Suck Before You Shine
Lying isn’t a responsible mistake but missing a deadline might be.
Catastrophic mistakes spring from character flaws and irresponsibility. It’s a disaster when you lie or cheat. But skill-development REQUIRES responsible mistake-making.
Falling while learning to walk is responsible mistake-making. Without it, we’d still be crawling. But failing to follow-up on commitments is catastrophic, even in small ways.
The first meeting you ran sucked. 100 meetings later, if you learned from mistakes, your meetings improved. (Sadly, many leaders are pathetic because they tolerate their own mediocrity.)
Failure is most dangerous when it becomes reason to stay the same.
Mark Twain wrote, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”
James March and Jerker Denrell called Twain’s insight the “Hot-Stove Effect.”
The Hot-Stove Effect… “Causes problems in domains where practice makes a difference.” In other words, skill-development moves forward on responsible failure. (HBR)
How to fail responsibly:
Think of the first tough conversation you led. Are you doing things the same today? I sure hope not.
#1. Gaze into the eyes of failure. Don’t push past quickly.
Slow down and learn by asking:
- What do you know?
- What are you learning?
(Avoid asking, “What have you learned?” It gives the illusion of finality.)
#2. Debrief now.
Don’t wait until tomorrow to debrief today’s mistake.
How are you better today because you failed responsibly yesterday?
If you don’t learn from failure, you’re doomed to mediocrity.
The alternative to learning from failure is doing it right the first time. But…
You suck before you shine.
What’s the difference between responsible and irresponsible mistake-making?
How might you help others fail responsibly?
Once again, your timing is excellent, Dan. I’m prepping for a tough conversation that I’ve had many times before over the years. Your post makes me realize that my success rate is only about 4 out of 5. Time to reschedule and rethink. :0)
Thanks John. It’s a pleasure to be of service. We could all use a little reflection from time to time. Best wishes.
Responsible mistake making–own it, reflect on it, gain insights, make changes.
Irresponsible mistake making–blame others and don’t change.
How might you help others fail responsibly?
-What would you do differently next time?
-What new insight did you learn?
-What was unique about this situation?
-What knowledge or skill would have helped you be more successful?
Thanks Paul. Great questions. I hadn’t thought of the last one. What would have helped? … useful for reflection.
How are you better today because you failed responsibly yesterday? I know what sort of works and what REALLY does not work. I know what I can try and test and how that might affect the outcome. I am a failure practiced and honed veteran and I don’t let it get to my head.
Thanks Roger. I thought of the word HUMILITY as I read your comment. I can always use a bit of that.
The delta b/t Responsible v. Irresponsible
is in the planning.
The more conscious and deliberate you are in your choices going into a decision, the more insight you can gain if it doesn’t result in what you expected.
1. What do you really crave/want? (Intuition)
2. What can you say/do? (Influence/power)
3. What is the anticipated result? (Meaning)
4. Are 1-3 properly aligned/integrated? (Does it CREATE value, not extract it?)
Once a decision is experienced, re-evaluate the assumptions you made (always) and do it all again.
Some of us go straight from a crawl to a run, and have to learn to stop watching our feet and keep our head up to keep from smacking our heads.
Brilliant Rurbane. Evaluate assumptions is a useful challenge. What did you assume would happen? What happened? What assumptions were/are behind your decision.
Then there’s the Ryman Group’s mantra …
“What’s the NEXT successful step?”
This reminds me of a book I’m listening to, Necessary Endings, by Henry Cloud. He writes about a good kind of hopelessness that follows failure that can be the motivation to learn from a mistake. I would recommend that book to anyone needing to have hard conversations with someone who is under performing.
I’m learning that no matter what I’m facing (or failing at) there is always someone who has gone before me who can advise or help teach how to not suck (as much) next time.
Thank you, Dan, for your contribution to my learning!
Thanks Aden. Henry’s work is so useful. Glad you brought it up.
“How might you help others fail responsibly?”
When “Failure” = “Scrap” = “Trash” = “Dross” = “Rework” = “Not-recoverable cost” = “Unacceptable impact on the bottom line”, with great difficulty…
Thanks Mitch. 🙂 This speaks to the importance of designing small failures that don’t cost much.
Always a good reminder that failure is an opportunity for growth. This post goes with the recent Kobe Bryant quote I saw that said “If you’re afraid to fail, you probably will fail.” No one wants to fail, but reality says we will at some point, so our perspective must be that we want to learn to use mistakes as a way forward instead of something that holds us back.
Thanks Vicki. Love the quote.
Re: no one wants to fail. If you want to fail, I don’t want you on my team. 🙂
Thank you Dan for sharing important insight. I think responsible mistake making is when one does what they believed was the best they knew how at the time, but are always willing and ready to learn from their mistakes. Being aware that failing as part of the growth process means showing up for life class and taking its exams.
The difference between being responsible and irresponsible is that when someone is responsible you are on top of getting things achieved, and have the essential elements of being accountable and respect. Respect comes to play if you’re part of a group and work is distributed evenly and the task you’re assigned is well thought out and complete. From a public health perspective, public health promotes the welfare of a whole population. One has to be responsible and determined because the lives of many Americans are in your hands. Responsibilities dealing with immunization laws, regulatory authorities, and other guidelines are to help live a quality life that’s safe and effective, therefore, these responsibilities should be communicated effectively and have clarity. Responsibilities plays a huge role in the public health field in that you do not want to be accounted for the lives of others if things go bad. The attitude you have towards the responsibilities for health will reflect upon the burden of lifestyle that’s related to morbidity. Being irresponsible, one lacks in leadership, accountability, and not capable of handling assigned tasks. These types of people are not successful and have no motivations that drive them to achieve their goal. Being irresponsible, especially in the public health field, can impact the lives of others and increase morbidity. Public health deals with better the lives other others and a whole population when they feel the most vulnerable. They need your help; therefore, lacking responsibilities will deteriorate one’s health. Those who fail in taking responsibilities, one can start by leading by example. This is because when people see you and thrive in excellence, they usually want to be just as successful and look up to you as a leader. Another way to help someone thrive in their responsibilities is by reward whether its extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are a good way to be motivated and excel further.
After reading this post, it would seem that the difference between responsible and irresponsible mistake-making is taking responsibility for your actions. Lying and cheating stem from not accepting that you have done something wrong and do not want the punishment from that. While missing a deadline or running a poor meeting is not good, it is acceptable if you look at why it happened and how you plan to improve. In the public health field this is even more important, as the lives of others depend on the actions of us. It is difficult when such burdens exist to embrace the idea that mistakes are necessary to learning and we spend a lot of time exploring how to minimize these through training and experience. We are lucky to have such a rich history to learn from. The current pandemic is a very novel experience and will dictate what mistakes we, the public health community, will learn and grow from in response to future pandemic responses. The leaders of today can make the responsible mistakes that help us do better tomorrow. A good example of this, while not entirely public health centric, is the response to hurricane Katrina. The overall response to this was inefficient and poorly managed, but since then Louisiana has developed a very robust emergency preparedness plan. This is only possible because the mistakes were looked at through the lens of “what do we know and what are we learning?” Our health system cannot afford to succumb to mediocrity, and we all strive to never fail, but it has been an empowering exercise to remember that failure does not have to be entirely bad and can lead to better situations. I think we can help others fail responsibly by creating a space without judgement for mistakes, and one that focuses on self-reflection in the face of mistakes. Thinking on it, school is actually a fairly good supplement for this. While mistakes can be punished and self-reflection is more of a side effect of grades than an outcome, it allows us to have a safe environment to question and learn in.