Imagine you are 11 years old in a science laboratory. You are sitting quietly in the back of the room. You and your school friends have stealthily “borrowed” some chemicals from the chemical storage cupboard. In the basin beside you is a small glass jar of concentrated sulfuric acid, and a plastic container holding potassium permanganate. While the teacher lectures at the front of the room, you giggle quietly with your classmates and pour a mound of the potassium permanganate crystals inside the basin. You then add a little bit of sulfuric acid and there is some bubbling and frothing. While keeping an eye out for the teacher, you add some more sulfuric acid, then some more, then a lot more, and finally there is a little puff of purple smoke – which quickly erupts, belching out huge clouds into the room while the basin makes spitting and hissing noises. There is immediate panic, the room is evacuated. You are in big trouble.
This was a mistake I made over 35 years ago. I expected to be sent to the principal for a “caning” (the ultimate fearful punishment). I was surprised when the science teacher took me aside when things had calmed down and explained what had happened with the runaway chemical reaction. He wrote down the chemical reactions so it was very clear what had happened. He then made me promise that I would not “borrow” any more school chemicals. He was one of those teachers that you reflect back on and remember their ability to make a subject interesting. You also remember how they mentor students to help them get captivated with a subject, and they coach you on the mistakes you make.
This story came to mind this morning when I was listening to an audio book called “Winning” by Jack Welch, the ex CEO of GE. Jack talked about leadership traits, empowering people, building confidence in employees, developing a workplace where people speak their minds without retribution, encouraging a workplace where people take risks and are not “whacked” for making mistakes etc. He told a brief story about how he made a mistake early on in his career and blew up a large storage tank at a facility he was working at. There was a fire and the ensuing explosion broke windows. It caused ceiling tiles and other building components to fail. Even though this was a serious accident he was not sacked because of his mistake, as a matter of fact his boss discussed the scenario with him to try and work out what had gone wrong. It was treated as a learning experience and Jack remembered the leadership qualities of his boss. Imagine if someone was discussing your leadership skills 40+ years from now with specific stories.
Last year, I heard about the president of a high-tech company standing in front of his employees at an annual conference and breaking eggs on his head as he told them about risks and mistakes he had made throughout his career. There was also discussion about an executive who told his employees, “We don’t sack people who make mistakes, we sack people who don’t take risks.” These are leaders who understand the benefits and ultimate competitive advantage of mistakes.
What are the effects of a zero tolerance for mistakes?
1. Wasting time making sure all the ‘t’s are crossed before moving forward
2. High speed working environments usually have us making decisions with incomplete information and this works well most of the time – the job may never get done if we decide to spend a lot of time “playing safe”
3. People will be hesitant to bring creative ideas to the table due to the prospect of getting ridiculed
4. People are less likely to own up and identify their mistakes, errors can fester and grow unknown until there is a serious consequence
5. Employees who harbor the guilt of having made a mistake can end up with low energy levels due to worrying about the eventual consequences
6. People will be hesitant to bring creative ideas to the table due to the prospect of getting “whacked” (as Jack Welch calls it) if they fail
Ten Ways Exceptional Workplaces Handle “Progress By Mistake”
1. Management should be continuously vocal on the benefits of trying unique creative ideas and that the company supports and understands the importance of mistakes.
2. Provide a culture where people identify their mistakes and make them known at the earliest opportunity. They also get involved in fixing mistakes
3. At the end of a project there is a special meeting to discuss things that went wrong and there are rewards for the most “creative mistakes” (making this into a fun event helps people get over the mistakes in a positive manner)
4. Hire creative people with exceptional communication skills and impeccable ethics
5. Develop a workplace that embraces respect and trust
6. Continuously energize and empower employees. Delegate to them with clear objectives and let them “run with the ball”
7. Create an aura of balanced fun-energy that helps derail negativity from mistakes and encourages creativity
8. Maintain happy and loyal workers who feel invested in the company’s goals
9. Evoke an open communication culture where employees will speak up when they identify that someone may be making a bad decision (even if the person making the mistake is at the highest level of the organization
10. Provide recognition for people who come up with exceptional ideas. Communicate frequently and broadly throughout the organization
The Irish author James Joyce summed up this subject exceptionally well when he said, “Mistakes are the portals to discovery.”