Expect Mistakes in Business

August 23, 2011

Great professional sports teams are intolerant of mistakes – during a game. They’d much rather make their mistakes during practice. And if they do make a mistake during a game, they want to learn from it and avoid making it in the future.

Various professions have moments when mistakes aren’t tolerated, either. Doctors, for example, strive to be mistake-free during activities like surgery or delivering babies. While I’m not a doctor, I’m sure that the demands of the moment do plenty to increase concentration. Between that and years of training, mistakes are kept down to a rare occurrence. I’m equally sure that in other aspects of their job, doctors can and do make mistakes. The level of concentration required during surgery or delivering babies is not sustainable hour-by-hour, day-by-day.

In business, the “game” is continuous; we don’t have the luxury of practicing more than we play like sports teams; quite the opposite, in fact. And while we all have our peak moments of high concentration and involvement, we can’t sustain that pace indefinitely any more than doctors can.

This doesn’t mean that we should tolerate any and all mistakes. If mistakes are being made, it means that we – as leaders – must take a look in the mirror. Ask yourself if you are pushing people too hard. Are they multitasking and continually working against impossible deadlines? If so, you need to make some changes that allow people to have a fighting chance of winning.

Another source of mistakes is that some people could be “playing the wrong position.” What are their strengths and interests? Are they in positions that are well suited to their skills and background? If not, making some moves to put people in the right positions might bring more success – with fewer mistakes.

There’s a constructive form of mistakes: they are the result of an organization that is pushing the envelope to get better by trying new things, by exercising its creative muscle and innovating. To be successful in today’s globally-competitive economy, we need to maximize the creativity and potential of everyone around us.

This introduces a difficult dynamic: Maximizing the potential of people means that they must stretch themselves to grow, and that means there will be mistakes in the process. People and teams will fail at times. The goal becomes one of minimizing mistakes or the impact of mistakes while we learn from those mistakes and fully leverage all of that human capital.

Agile development is one excellent working example of how to approach this problem. Autonomous, self-directed teams provide a great motivational and productivity boost. Consider the following advantages:
  • Decision-making is optimized. Because teams operate independently, the overhead of obtaining approvals for things that can just as easily be determined by the team is eliminated, saving valuable time.
  • Professionals who are trusted to operate independently are happier, more engaged employees. This in turn leads to higher productivity and retention, allowing you to continue to leverage skilled, knowledgeable people indefinitely.
  • Emergent innovation takes place through conversations between the development team and the business users (or proxies).
In his book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, Stephen Denning cites the following productivity improvements with self-directed teams:

“In 1990, Jack Orsburn and his colleagues wrote in Self-Directed Work Teams that teams at Xerox became 30 percent more productive than they had been and 30 to 40 percent more productive at Procter & Gamble. Teams at Tektronix cut the product cycle from fourteen days to three days. Teams helped Federal Express cut service glitches by 13 percent.”

But there is a price. To quote Stephen Denning from Radical Management one more time: “Radical management accepts the inevitability of failure and puts arrangements in place to learn rapidly from failure and so progress toward success.”

The key about learning from mistakes and failures is to emphasize that they reveal limitations in our current capabilities. To push the envelope we need to understand where our existing boundaries are and to ascertain what it will take to overcome them. Ideally, this should be a continuous, systematic improvement cycle that is part of a sustainable work pace.

"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing." – John Wesley Powell