How to Make Better Mistakes

spelling-mistake-1You’re probably familiar with the following mantras:

Mistakes are beautiful.

Fail fast and often.

Errors are opportunities. 

All of these are basically true. But the real question isn’t whether mistakes are valuable. The real question is, how do we tap into that value? How do we take better advantage of our mistakes?

A while back, a Harvard business professor named Amy Edmondson decided to explore this mystery by investigating the organizational habits of hospitals, measuring the quality of the leadership and worker relationships in eight institutions.

Edmondson discovered something surprising: the best-run hospitals reported ten times more errors than the poorly run hospitals. Investigating further, Edmondson found that the real difference wasn’t in making mistakes (all the hospitals made about the same amount). The difference was in reporting them. Well-run hospitals operated in an open, transparent manner; mistakes were seen as opportunities for discussion and improvement. Poorly run hospitals, on the other hand, were filled with fear, uncertainty, and silence. Employees thought that “heads would roll” if they admitted making mistakes.

In other words, the better hospitals weren’t necessarily smarter or more talented. They had something more powerful: a psychological safe zone: a shared place where mistakes weren’t hidden, but discussed in the clear light of day.

To understand why this effect is so powerful, you have to understand that our brains are keenly sensitive to safety, and react with the equivalent of an on/off switch. When we get signals that we’re safe, we can relax, switch on, and perform to our potential. But when we get signals that we’re unsafe, we instinctively revert into what some call the “critter state”: fearful, twitchy, hunkered down. We switch off.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas on how to create a sense of safety:

  • 1) Send the message early and often. Our brains are built to decide whether we’re safe very early in any interaction. The earlier you send the signal — making mistakes and talking about them is okay — the more effective it will be.
  • 2) Be systematic. Capture mistakes in notebooks, or through an open review process. Encourage the dissection process. Treat mistakes not as a verdict, but as information to be sifted over and over for connections and ideas.
  • 3) Model it. No signal is so powerful as a leader who is open about their own mistakes, even small ones.

Happy New Year!

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