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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5 Responses to “How to Make Better Mistakes”

  1. Rich Kent says:

    I read about Professor Dan Gerdes asking his sports psychology students to explore how failure can be helpful. Among the list his students compiled were the following:
    -Failure found what didn’t work.
    -Failure creates hunger to do better.
    -Failure adds value to success.
    -Failure is feedback.
    Best to all in 2014!

  2. djcoyle says:

    Rich, That is a truly terrific list. Thanks for sharing it — and Happy New Year to you and yours!

  3. Daniel,

    Making it safe for people to report mistakes is a wonderful managerial practice. The fact that reporting is often necessary reveals an important difference between organizational work and sports or the performing arts. In performances of football or music, many mistakes are visible, if not live then on videotape. And in practice, well, you’ve showed in your book how great coaches provide in-the-moment correction in short bursts, at least in activities requiring rigor rather than flexibility. Yet in organizations, mistakes often disappear unless people report them. And therein lies the importance of having a safe space to speak up. Thanks for this post!

  4. Daniel this is a gem! I coach baseball and I often find myself concerned with kids who are not coachable. I suspect in many cases their lack of coachability can be traced back to a coach or parent who does not have a healthy perspective on failure. If they were humiliated or punished in the past for making a mistake then its scarey for them to admit a mistake and therein lies the problem in coachability. Its difficult to coach / correct a kid who will not admit they made a mistake. Great article, I glad I found it.

  5. Joy Macy says:

    Errors are opportunities to learn & to grow. If the teacher could foster a classroom culture that encourages children to move out of comfort zone then everyone will learn to reach for what is beyond the obvious to search & use new strategies to solve the problem or classroom task. Always keep a sense of humor. The teacher must MODEL making mistakes & show resiliency in overcoming shortcomings, too.

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