What’s your mistake policy?

I always start with this question when companies ask me to help them build a culture of innovation.

Mistakes are a necessary component of change. However, most organizations don’t have a clear ‘policy’ on how to deal with mistakes. I’m not talking about rules of regulations but an explicit approach to how mistakes fit the company’s DNA.

Historically, mistakes equaled to incompetency. The message was: “If you commit a mistake, you will be fired.” Though that implicit threat is still present, more leaders now realize that mistakes are a crucial component of learning and development.

Celebrating mistakes has become, not only accepted but cool. A company where errors are given a place of honor is considered modern and innovative. The problem is that we are rapidly shifting from a culture of fear to one of zero accountability.

Teams should be encouraged to make mistakes. But errors are a mean to an end, not the goal. Mistakes must not be celebrated; what your team learns from them should.

Why companies are afraid of mistakes

“I err therefore I am.” — St. Augustine

Companies still have a hard time accepting that employees are human.

Most organizations operate with a perfectionist mindset. They plan ahead and then expect things to go as anticipated. But reality never meets expectations. That’s why your team’s ability to adapt to uncertainty is a competitive advantage. Those who can learn and adapt fast to what the real world throws at them, thrive in change.

Perfectionism is the worst enemy of innovation, as I wrote here.

Companies expect their teams to be flawless. But they are not. Perfectionism is a defense mechanism to silence people’s vulnerable side. Organizations proudly talk about human capital but then expect people to hide their emotions and true feelings.

The same happens to the rightness mindset. “This is the way things work here” is a perfect testament to that. Most organizations see the world through a right or wrong lens. Thus, becoming “Error Blind.” Pulitzer awardee Kathryn Schulz coined that term to explain how (most people) don’t have a clue to know they are wrong about something until it’s too late.

In addition to that, the wrongologist explains how our relationship with mistakes is embedded in our culture. In elementary school, we are taught that failing is associated to dumbs. As we grow up, we reinforce the notion that people that make mistakes are a failure. That’s why we focus our energy into NOT making errors ourselves. If you are a failure, you will be fired.

Understanding that employees are human is critical. Sounds obvious, but most people miss the point. When you accept imperfection as standard, you are better prepared to deal with mistakes. Organizations must let go of the rightness and perfectionist mindsets, and embrace a learning mind.

Remove the fear of making mistakes but, most importantly, encourage your team to learn from them.

The unspoken rules of mistakes

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” — Richard Branson

How organizations approach mistakes is a guessing game. When there’s lack of clarity or transparency, people will create their own assumptions. Unspoken rules shape how your team behaves, as I explained here.

Here are some of the most common unwritten rules on errors.

  • The more afraid people feel about making errors, the more they will make.
  • Fear of being punished encourages people to hide their mistakes.
  • When people don’t admit making an error, solving it will become more expensive once you find out.
  • Companies that are error blind are not just acting on denial but missing valuable learning opportunities.
  • Organizations’ double standards about mistakes erode trust (people know better).

In the end, mistakes are part of our human nature. They will happen regardless, so you’d better embrace them to help improve your game.

You need to have an explicit error policy. Not processes or rules but rather a point of view. What’s your company’s perspective on errors? What should be celebrated and what not? What is it allowed and what will be punished? (And why and how)

Reframe Mistakes as Learning

“Admitting your mistakes makes you humble. But not repeating your mistakes makes you clever.” — Sarvesh Jain

Mistakes are learning opportunities. But not all errors are equal; it’s a big miss to put them all in the same box. Check out five ways to turn mistakes in your favor.

1. Mistakes as Self-development

These are the lessons that will help your team members grow both as individuals as well as professionals. What has the person discovered about himself/ herself? What would they do differently next time?

Turning a mistake into a self-development lesson might require some coaching. But avoid being too directive. Too much oversight can backfire. Encourage self-reflection instead. People don’t want to be told how to change; learning is a personal journey.

2. Mistakes as discovery

Most great innovations happened unexpectedly, not necessarily in an innovation workshop. Discovery means finding something unexpected or unknown.

In 1948, Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer George de Mestral went hiking in the woods. Back at his home, he noticed the burrs that clung to his clothes. After studying a burr under a microscope, he wondered if its tiny hooks could be used in commercial application. That’s how Velcro was invented. Discovery is not just serendipity but being open to acknowledging the unexpected.

3. Mistakes as empathy

When something doesn’t go as planned, it reveals a lot about people’s emotions and mindsets. Mistakes are an invitation to walk in someone else’s shoes. You can uncover a lot about your team, customers, partners, etc.

United Airlines recently tried to replace its performance incentive with a lottery system that would give away big prizes. Faced with backlash from employees, the company had to pause the initiative. Mistakes like this clearly show the gap between management and their team. But they are also an excellent opportunity for learning more about your team and make sure you don’t repeat the same error.

4. Mistakes as a red light

Errors can be an indicator of what’s not working. They can become a wake-up call. If something is wrong, how can it be fixed or improved?

Remember what happened to VW: the Environmental Agency discovered the car manufacturer was cheating emissions test in the U.S. Mistakes can also uncover bad cultural behaviors that were purposefully hidden. We are all clueless until mistakes catch our attention. Are you listening?

5. Mistakes as part of experimentation

Innovation requires a trial and error approach. To experiment, test, validate, learn, adjust, and iterate.

The Amazon Web Services platform was initially launched for internal needs. A visit from a couple of engineers sparked the “what if we turn it into a revenue-generating services?” question. Building on a robust internal infrastructure, AWS become one of the first and most profitable Amazon services. Currently, a $17.4 billion revenue business.

Jeff Bezos said: “Failure and invention are inseparable twins.” You can’t have learnings without mistakes and the other way around.

Reframe what your team should celebrate

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates

Mistakes don’t equal to failure. But not learning from them is a huge loss.

To thrive in uncertainty , experimentation and innovation are a must. And there’s no invention without failure. Mistakes are a necessary stop, not the final destination.

Embrace mistakes as part of the innovation journey. Define clear rules of what role errors play in your company. Innovation is messy, at least have clarity on how the game should be played.

Encourage your team to take risks and make mistakes. Make space to decant and reflect on the learnings. Coach your team not to take errors as personal but as a signal that things can be much better. But, to do, requires them to learn

Celebrate the learnings, not the mistakes.