Thursday, September 8, 2011

Making mistakes, and learning from them

Challenging as it can be to admit, we all make mistakes. But as I've pointed out in this space before, and as Alina Tugend describes in her new book Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, mistakes, if they are acknowledged and looked at, are an opportunity. Tugend quotes John F. Kennedy on that point, "as a wise man once said, 'An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.'"

Different cultures approach mistakes and learning from them differently, and Tugend argues that we need to change our approach to mistakes, if only so as not to get caught up in a dead-end perfectionism. Perfectionism can be paralyzing in any circumstances, she points out, but particularly so if we live or work in an inflexible environment where blame is cast around. The solution, she says, is to figure out what can be learned from a mistake "and fix the lesson, not the blame." (Tugend relates a story of the CEO who rejected the resignation offer of a subordinate who had just made a big mistake saying,"Are you kidding? We've just spent $10 million educating you.")

This is not a management book (there's no mention of Deming, for example, or root cause analysis), and it's not a parenting book, though Tugend uses examples from her own household. It's an exploration, and as a result Tugend packs quite a number of themes, from middle school math to effective corporate apologies, into it. But Tugend lists several ways that we can each change ourselves. Taken together, these would make an office, or a household, more inviting and in all likelihood more creative. They are:

     * Emphasize effort, not results.
     * Appreciate that we can't be perfect.
     * Take risks, challenge ourselves, and don't fear failure.
     * Solve problems, don't place blame.
     * When you're solving the problems, keep lines of communication open, and remember that communication goes both ways.

But if you work in an office, how do you know when you've made a mistake? Especially when you're the boss? When you're a senior staff member or an executive, you may not always get the information you need - you may be hearing only what you want to hear. And unless you ask in the right way, you're not going to get feedback about your personal style. Robert S. Kaplan, a professor at the Harvard Business School, sets out a few ways for senior staff to get this kind of information in the September 2011 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. Among his suggestions:

    * Ask your staff about how you can improve. I tried doing this once, and got nowhere, but Kaplan offers a specific, workable process that would have worked for me.
     * Ask yourself what facts about yourself might help your staff understand you - and then tell them.
     * Find some mechanism for your staff to debate, openly, all the key issues they are dealing with.
     * Do what Kaplan calls the "Clean sheet of paper" exercise - ask your staff to consider what your operation might look like if you started from scratch.

This is a short article, and useful for anyone managing staff as well as senior executives.

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