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LTT Business Bulletin - November 2015

The Art of Making Mistakes


Pablo Picasso once said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” This is one of my favourite quotes; it serves as a reminder for me to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone every day. Or, as I like to say, do different every day.

Deep down, many of us don’t like to make mistakes or to fail, so our hardwiring tells us to avoid risky situations.  We focus on what we do well because… that’s what we’re good at. But there’s a cost. In a business context, the reluctance to experiment can hamper innovation, make it hard to identify new opportunities and to grow. When mistakes do get made, people cover them up as quickly as possible, or try to pin blame elsewhere, in order to save face and preserve status.

Last Christmas, my wife gave me a surfing lesson as a gift. I’d never surfed before, and boy was it a lesson in humility. I expected it would be hard, but I thought I’d at least manage to stand on a board before the 2 hours was up. Let’s just say, I’m going to need a few more lessons… (unlike my 8 year old daughter, who seemed to be having no trouble.)

As it happened, at the time of the lesson I’d just finished reading a great book by Carol Dweck, called Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. In her book Dweck talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. My initial reaction to my surfing fails was a classic example of fixed mindset, as I started telling myself: “This is hopeless… I’m obviously not cut out for this; what must the teacher think of me; perhaps I should just stop now.” The more I allowed myself to think that way, the worse I got.

Towards the very end of the lesson, I caught myself in the moment, and swung my thoughts towards a growth mindset: “I’m as likely to surf as anyone else in this lesson; I just need to ask for feedback, keep experimenting and take the time to learn from the failures which are going to keep happening.” And while I didn’t suddenly turn into a surfing pro, I did start to enjoy myself, and finished the lesson with a clear recognition of what I’d been doing wrong. And I can’t wait for the next lesson!

As a leader, you play an important role in shaping the dominant mindset in your organisation: a fixed or growth culture. What do you do to encourage people to experiment with new approaches and ideas, even if it doesn’t work out? When is it okay to fail, and what does it mean to “fail well”?

One business owner I know builds failure into his team’s expectations. For example, he not only sets sales targets, but also sets rejection targets. He expects people to be getting a certain number of rejections, because if they don’t, he assumes they’re not being adventuresome enough. The only proviso is that the rejections have to include ‘experiments’ i.e. I tried X, it didn’t quite work, but here’s what I’m going to try next time.

Another General Manager I work with has been trying to foster a culture of innovation in her organisation, but found that ideas were moving too slowly because people weren’t confident that their ideas were up to scratch. So, she set a target that 10 new ideas should be tabled to the executive team each quarter, with the expectation that 9 of those will probably be rejected. She’s shifted the team’s focus from “nail it’ to “throw lots of ideas up”. Experiment fast, learn fast.

So what about you? What’s your philosophy on the art of making mistakes? What do you do to make it safe for people to experiment and learn when appropriate?

Simon Dowling is all about enabling leaders to create the right conditions for team engagement and performance. He helps his clients to build highly connected and collaborative teams and workplaces. And is a very nice guy.