Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don't Waste A Mistake!

Something that a lot of good parents know is that you gotta let your kids make mistakes. In fact, that's the only way they can learn and grow as confirmed by years of research in developmental psychology (see, e.g., Remember, Mistakes are for Learning).  It's no different for adults either. Nonetheless, when we as entrerpeneurs are in the midst of startup activity, with all the confidence, optimism and forward-looking stamina in the world, we tend to try to brush the mistakes aside (if not under a rug) and move on. Who's got time for all that when you are trying to disrupt the course of mankind?

Problem is, without learning from mistakes we are bound to... you know the rest. So, how do we reconcile the desire to rapidly move forward while also learning from mistakes?

The magic solution to this dilemma is in that elusive notion of "startup culture" that I have been referring to many times in this blog. If your culture is one in which mistakes are punished and viewed as shameful and reflective of your worth as a team member, or worse, human being, good luck to you. You will be chasing your tail to infinity.

On the other hand, a culture that welcomes mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow from tends to be one in which not only innovative ideas find roots, but also find the optimal path(s) to grow among the many good and bad possibilities. Our attitude towards mistakes is what determines our ability to learn from them. Again, there is ample research data to confirm these in case you are interested (see, e.g.,  )

Here is an excerpt from Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong by Alina Tugend that captures some components of a productive, healthy attitude towards mistakes as applicable to parenting as it is to running a startup:

There are no simple fixes, but there are ways all of us can shift our thinking about mistakes. Starting with our children, we can emphasize effort and deemphasize results. We can appreciate that we -- and they -- can't be perfect, nor is it a goal we should aim for. We should strive to do our best, but if the prize is ever-elusive perfection, then the fear of failure will too often overshadow the willingness to experiment, take risks and challenge ourselves. We should be careful of the contradictory message that it's all right to make mistakes but not where it counts...

Assuming you have bought into the idea that it is better to learn from mistakes than to shove them under the rug, here are some practical steps you can take in that direction when encountering a mistake (be it a bug in your release, catching spelling errors in your expensive ad campaign, misplacing an important document, etc):

1. Always be grateful when a mistake is found. Catching it later would have been worse at the least.
2. Express your gratitude and make sure your body language confirms that.
3. Don't focus on who is responsible, but for what went wrong.
4. Shed light on the situation in a collaborative, problem solving session focused on learning
5. Brainstorm on ways to catch that kind of mistake earlier in the future
6. Focus on learnings and action plan moving forward

Some other quick, noteworthy readings on this topic include:

Fred Wilson's Don't Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste
Jessica Stillman's Don't Let a Good Mistake Go To Waste

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