Embracing & Championing Mistakes

09 Jan 2010

I’ve had a philosophy about embracing and championing mistakes for most of my life and how it has helped me to create better teams. Some of this philosophy comes from my core values and beliefs but some of it also became solidified after witnessing some pretty horrible situations in the business world.

A bit of history

About 15 years ago I worked for a company that was notorious for having a horrendous culture. Aside from racist, sexist, and inappropriate comments, there was constant fear of layoffs and terminations if someone made the most human of errors. During my time at this company I had a friend that did end up getting fired from the company after making a human error. He had recently switched roles in the company but since he was very knowledgeable about his previous role, he was still being asked to work in his previous role. He was working 70+ hours per week (which was the norm at the company) and the systems and processes that were involved in this project were sub-par. They were so convoluted and didn’t have any quality assurance oversight that the only surprise is that we didn’t see massive errors on a daily basis.

In my friend’s situation he made an error, was terminated because of it and the company told the client, “We took care of the problem; we fired the guy that made the mistake”. Obviously, they didn’t take care of the problem. The problem was due to systems, processes, and yes, people (more than only my friend). As someone that is passionate about helping others, I was pretty irritated with what had transpired and wanted to make sure that I did my part around two key areas:

  1. Ensure that people are not in fear of their job if they make mistakes
  2. That we all learn from mistakes, regardless of who makes them

We’re all human, we all make mistakes and we all will make mistakes in the future. What matters is what we learn from mistakes and how we handle them. And as the adage goes, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. If we know that we will always make mistakes and that they will be repeated, then why not only be understanding of mistakes but go even further and champion mistakes?

Now this isn’t to say that we need to be giving out trophies for people that make lots of mistakes or accidentally creating a culture of encouraging mistakes, though I feel like that would be challenging to do. But we do want to make sure that when mistakes happen, as many people as possible have an opportunity to learn from the mistake. Instead of looking at a mistake as some horrible thing that should be hidden, we should leverage the mistake as a learning opportunity for the organization.

But most managers and companies that I’ve come across over the last 20+ years don’t seem to subscribe to this philosophy. Take the company that my friend was fired from for his human error in a risk-prone environment. This company didn’t embrace, let alone, even accept mistakes. In turn, they created a culture of fear where people didn’t want to take calculated risks or they felt (rightfully so) that mistakes should be covered up or the blame should be placed on others. They created a culture of fear, mistrust, blame, and stagnation from innovation, all because of how they managed mistakes.

Embracing & Championing Mistakes

To ensure that I never managed an organization or led people with fear, I took a different approach of embracing mistakes. Whenever I’ve worked on new teams and had new direct reports I’ve always explained my philosophy to my team members. Most of the time I feel like I receive a lot of non-verbal looks of skepticism as if I might be setting a trap. Which is why this embracement has to start at the top with the leader and his or her mistakes.

For a bit of background information if you don’t know much about me, I’ve worked mostly in tech for about 17 years and spent a few years in other industries. I’ve functioned as an individual contributor as well as a leader. I’ve built teams from the ground up, inherited teams, and re-built teams over the course of my career. I’ve worked for my share of dysfunctional companies, teams, and managers and while those weren’t positive experiences, they did provide me with plenty of examples and education of what not to do. I can’t think of a better way to apply this philosophy of learning from mistakes.

When managing teams and championing my philosophy, my first order of business (after explaining my philosophy and how we’ll operate as a team when it comes to mistakes) is take fear out of the equation. I want to assure everyone on the team that making a mistake is not the end of the world. However, lying and covering up mistakes is something that is frowned upon. I think that there are potential issues if someone is continuously making mistakes but that is a topic for another day. After saying that people shouldn’t be afraid, actions have to follow and align with this statement. These actions usually start with me as a leader. After demonstrating that it’s okay to make mistakes and creating a safe zone, the final part is to try to create situations that will surface mistakes for the purpose of educating others.

Practical Example

In practice I have SCRUM stand-up meetings on a daily basis with my team. During these meetings I try to sneak in learning opportunities along with the status updates. For example, if I’m giving my status update I’m going to cover: 1. What I worked on yesterday, 2. What I’m going to do today, 3. What blockers I’m hitting, and 4. Anything else that the team should be aware of.

In one status update to the team I was explaining that I was working on a project yesterday and I broke a piece of code and that today I’ll be fixing the issue. As part of this update, I called out how I broke the code in the first place. I explained to the team that I didn’t do a good enough job on quality assurance checks on my code and my quick spot checking seemed good enough. Also, I didn’t have anyone do a code review. Both of these are bad practices and I should know better. So, please learn from this mistake, let’s hold each other accountable and ensure that we’re doing code reviews. When it comes to quality assurance checks, if you’re feeling exhausted on a project and you’re in the mindset of just trying to get it signed off, maybe this is a good time to take a break or ask someone else to review your work. Having a team member to hold you accountable can be extremely helpful.

The key here is to ensure that you can call out your mistakes, maybe joke around a bit, and allow others to ask questions and share their feedback on how to avoid the mistake in the future. If you as a leader start to share your mistakes you’ll have a good opportunity to lead by example and create a learning culture on your team. However, if you’re an individual contributor and you subscribe to this philosophy, I would encourage you to exercise caution.

The Risks

While I firmly believe in sharing these mistakes to help others learn and to help create more accountability for myself and others, I also know that I can’t be blind to office politics. As an individual contributor it’s important to be very cautious about sharing mistakes if you don’t have a manager that supports this philosophy. I’ve worked with plenty of managers that don’t actually truly believe in growing people and expanding knowledge. I would never dream of sharing my mistakes with these managers because I was very confident that this information would be used against me. These managers would take note of these mistakes and it would be used in annual review. Unfortunately, selection bias and recency bias is almost always at play with most managers so if you’re talking about your mistakes, it’s probably going to damage your personal brand. Maybe some of your team members will be better off for learning from you but there’s a good chance that you’ll be falling on the sword when it comes time for layoffs, receive lower raises and financial benefits, and struggle more to get promoted in your organization.

If you are an individual contributor and you believe in this philosophy, it’s probably best to have a discussion with your manager to see if he or she also supports this (and doesn’t use it as a tool to reprimand others). There’s a huge element of trust that has to be created and maintained here. If your manager doesn’t discuss his or her mistakes there’s probably some reason for you to be skeptical of how bought in they are to this philosophy. You could try to only share mistakes with your teammates, avoiding bubbling them up to your manager even if your manager isn’t supportive, but there are also political landmines here.

At every company that I’ve worked for I’ve seen at least some element of risk by sharing mistakes with the wrong people. Some organizations pit employees against each other in a very cut throat environment. If you work in one of these environments I hope that you’ll find a happier place in the near future. But I wouldn’t suggest sharing mistakes with people. In a dog-eat-dog environment, your “learnings” and helpfulness can and quite possibly will be used against you. In other environments that are a bit less dysfunctional, there is still an element of risk.

Your co-workers might not have malicious intent but management might just ask your co-workers for general feedback. And either through casual conversation (where your co-worker was led to believe they were in a safe space) or through bias, your co-worker may inadvertently paint you and your personal brand in a negative light.

I hope this helps more people to think about sharing their mistakes in an effort to allow others to learn and avoid making the same mistakes. Next time we’ll talk more about how to view mistakes when you’re in a leadership position.