Mistake: (noun)1: a wrong judgment : misunderstanding
2: a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention. (Source: Merriam Webster)
Have you ever made a mistake in business? Of course you have.
We all have. We’re human, right?
Whether you’re the business owner, manager or team member, it's easy to make mistakes. We all make them. All the time.
The question then isn’t really whether or not we’ve made mistakes—but how we’ve handled them once we’ve made them. In business, making mistakes can actually be beneficial.
“Mistakes are the pathway to great ideas and innovation,” says Amy Reese Anderson, founder and managing partner of REES Capital, a mentor capital and angel investment firm.“Mistakes are the stepping stones to moving outside the comfort zone to the growing zone where new discoveries are made and great lessons are learned. Mistakes are not failures, they are simply the process of eliminating ways that won’t work in order to come closer to the ways that will,” she adds, in a post for Forbes.
Mistakes made in business can range from simple misunderstandings to taking the wrong action because you weren’t paying attention, or you forgot, you were moving too quickly, were under too much stress, were feeling angry or elated and over reacted, or just didn’t have the right information when you needed it.
There are big mistakes, costly ones, and little mistakes. The impact of the mistake you make depends on the specifics of the situation and how you handle everything that follows once you’ve discovered that something has gone wrong.
Regardless of how and why the mistake happened, following these guidelines will help you handle the situation professionally and move forward.
Be honest about the mistake, to yourself, and to your team or boss or employees. Be ready to recap the extent of the problem, its possible impact, and your level of responsibility. Try not to feel defensive, but be very straightforward about what’s gone wrong, and the part you played.
Go over the problem, its potential impact on the company or its customers, the projected financial impact and the costs to make things right. Look at the systems that you have in place, and think through how they may have been inadequate and how you can rework them to prevent future errors. Think through the process of repairing the problem so you can communicate the steps to your team, boss, or employees.
Apologize for it.
Honest, sincere apologies don’t fix what’s been broken, but they go a long way toward repairing trust, and they indicate a level of caring and commitment that provides assurance to all involved. As you apologize, be careful in choosing your words. Make sure you are accepting responsibility for your part and committing to helping develop the solution.
What can be done to make things right? Is it to provide a credit to an unhappy customer? Redesign a faulty product? As part of the evaluation process, you will have estimated costs and systems needed to make things right. Now, get that done and as soon as the problem has been fixed, communicate that fact. Depending on the specific situation, you may or may not need to go public about the problem and its solution, but be prepared to; and be prepared to speak honestly about it.
Learn from it.
“I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.” – Jack Welch
Go over the situation when you have a quiet moment. Analyze what really happened, and learn from it. Were the systems in place inadequate? Should you be getting more sleep and drinking less coffee in the morning? Is that employee perhaps not ready for increased responsibility? Did you misread the market? Were you not listening to your customers’ feedback?
The answers to these questions may yield valuable insights that can be converted into the next great thing for your company. “You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you’ll find success; on the far side,” said IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson.
And then there’s a school of thought, introduced by Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther in the Harvard Business Review in 2006, that advocates making deliberate mistakes in business, as a way of creating opportunities for profitable learning. “By reframing tough tasks as ‘deliberate mistakes’ we can help remove all of the pressure that can keep us frozen, all while learning something along the way,” says John Caddell, in an article for 99u.
Caddell suggests using the following four steps as part of the “deliberate mistake” process:
Look hard at your assumptions.
We all make assumptions. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes, we’re way off base with what we assume to be true. Caddell suggests scrutinizing your assumptions, and then choosing one. “Pick one out and think about something you could do to put it to the test — in which the downside is low and what you will learn is potentially very valuable,” he states.
Next? Be prepared to fail.
It probably won’t work, he cautions. So be prepared for it not to. And then, be pleasantly surprised if, in fact it does. As long as the test you’re running is relatively low-risk, you stand to lose very little, but possibly learn a great deal.
After that? Do your best.
In spite of the fact that you’re running a low-risk test, Caddell stresses the importance and value of doing your very best. In order for the test to yield true data and valuable lessons, you need to give it your all.
Finally? Compare reality to your assumptions.
“If you fail, if the mistake proceeds as expected, you will have a list of lessons that you gained from the experience,” he states. Go over your list of assumptions. Figure which were true and which were not. Compile your lists and use them as guidance for your next “deliberate mistakes”. One of these times you may surprise yourself and be successful and the lesson learned along the way can be invaluable.
Amy Rees Anderson sees the value in creating a work environment where her employees feel empowered to own their mistakes and has identified areas in her business where she feels comfortable allowing her employees the freedom to experiment on finding new and better ways to do things. She describes setting an official company policy and communicating it to her employees. “Making any mistake once was OK, so long as it was an honest mistake made while attempting to do what they felt was the right thing,” she said. “Making any mistake once was OK, but repeating that same mistake a second time was NOT OK.”
Anderson’s company policy included a hard and fast rule that, while the entire team would back the employee in fixing the first mistake, if any employee made the same mistake a second time, they would be 100 percent on their own to face the consequences.
Anderson sees this philosophy as bearing the hallmarks of good leadership. “The steps to correcting mistakes apply to any area of life. Whether it’s business life or home life or personal life, the principles of apologizing remain the same. Good employees make a lot of mistakes, and truly great employees are those who have mastered the art of apologizing for those mistakes,” she concludes.
She’s right. So go forth and make those mistakes. Make deliberate ones and own the ones you didn't mean to make. Keep learning and keep growing! Your business will thank you.