“A man who never makes a mistake never makes anything.”
– Herr Hunt, my third-grade German teacher
When I was in third grade, my teacher invited a guest instructor, Herr Hunt, to come in for a few weeks and teach us a bit about Germany and the German language. While I’ve forgotten most everything from that experience, save how to count to twenty in German, there was one comment made by our instructor which has never left me.
Whenever Herr Hunt would see that we were afraid to answer a question, he would say, A man who never makes a mistake never makes anything.
You mean that it’s OK to make mistakes?
Wait? Wait? You’re not just saying mistakes are OK, you’re saying they’re necessary?
The idea was a revelation, and ultimately a valuable counterbalance to my already overdeveloped perfectionist tendencies. Yes, even at that tender age.
You don’t have to be a recovering perfectionist, like me, to have been tainted with our society’s pervasive contempt for mistakes. How often has your significant other commended you for a mistake? How frequently have you witnessed a grade raised or bonus increased on the grounds of a mistake?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we necessarily have to reward mistakes, but in our culture, we are on the other end of the spectrum. We seem to be at war with mistakes, and in that war, we are largely unaware of the collateral damage to innovation, learning, and our ability to improve. Fear of making mistakes stifles our collective creativity, risk-taking and, ultimately, our growth.
As business owners and leaders, we have a responsibility to our businesses and our stakeholders to maximize value. Doing so means getting the most out of each relationship. One way to quickly add value to our organizations is to normalize our perception of mistakes, by turning them into tools for learning and growth.
I suggest starting with:
- Education – Raise awareness as to the vital role mistakes play in achieving successful outcomes. From idea generation and selection to planning and implementation we must leverage our mistakes to reach desired outcomes.
- Encouragement – Encourage communication and acceptance of mistakes. Remove any stigma of shame associated with mistakes, get them out into the light of day and encourage everyone to learn from them.
- Integration – Integrate acceptance of mistakes into your processes. When brainstorming, value all ideas regardless of which you pursue. When implementing, record and discuss blind alleys and wrong turns that you’ve made, as a way to share learning.
- Commitment – Don’t stop. Many things that are simple, are not easy. Old habits take time and repetition to eliminate. Stay committed.
- Tempering – While we don’t want to demonize mistakes, we’re not trying to encourage a proliferation of mistakes for their own sake, either. Rather than a culture of “make no mistakes” or one of “make lots of mistakes”, strive for a culture of “we embrace and learn from our mistakes”. Redirect the energy spent condemning mistakes into energy dedicated to learning from them and codifying their lessons into your collective business knowledge, processes and wisdom.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that for those who can graciously accept their charity, nothing pays more handsomely than a mistake. May you accept and prosper from yours.