“It’s ok to make mistakes” is a clichéd and mostly misunderstood concept. Merriam-Webster defines a mistake as an error in judgment, but it can also be an error in action, calculation, or opinion, caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, or insufficient knowledge. We tend to think of the acceptance or intolerance of making mistakes as a matter of being nice or not, when it has nothing to do with being nice. (Makes me ponder why the prevalence of disruption and innovation comes from outside a particular industry. Even the dictionary needs to be disrupted!) To me “insufficient knowledge” can be a blessing. It leads to innovation and disruption. Too much knowledge can restrict you, fill you with the very fear of making a mistake (or in other words, just tells you what you can’t do, making innovation or disruption impossible!) Strategic mistake-making is essential to the success of any endeavor – and more so now than at any time in history. Your mantra should be, “Make many mistakes and make them fast.”
The change-makers in business are learning that if you design a business system that will make mistakes and recognize them quickly, the company will be more innovative. And conversely, if you create a culture where people are afraid to make mistakes, you’ll change very slowly and innovation will be rare.
Penicillin, the double helix of DNA, the pacemaker, potato chips, Silly Putty, Scotchgard and the X-Ray are all famous legacy products and concepts that were invented or realized by mistake. And these are just the legends. Look back at your own history and you’ll likely find that there were a number of things that could have been viewed as mistakes at the time that resulted in eventual success. What you studied in school, your first business ventures, where you set up shop, even the people you hired who became driving forces in your company. Most of us can see that mistakes have been instrumental in building who we are today. In fact, as I reflect, many of my most fun businesses and relationships are specifically the result of flat out mistakes.
Traditionally, companies tend to view any mistake as a negative. In some cases, anything you do that is outside of your job description is considered a “mistake.” 3M sent shockwaves across the management culture when they made it company policy that everyone in the company, from secretary to CEO, should spend 15% of their time on innovation outside of their job description. Google borrowed the concept and raised the bar to 20%. Essentially, what these progressive companies are doing is providing a structure for strategic mistake making, exploration and innovation.
I’d go so far as to say if you’ve managed to eliminate mistakes in your business, you’re at high risk of becoming obsolete. Ponder these predictions for a moment:
Professor Richard Foster at Yale University predicts that by 2020, 75% of the S&P 500 will be companies we’ve never heard of.
In a TEDx presentation, Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute predicted that 2 billion jobs will disappear globally by 2030 due to transformations in transportation, energy, food distribution and information dissemination. That’s about half the jobs on the planet!
In 2012, Intel released a white paper on workplace predictions for 2025, and it included the bold statement that: “The definition of an employee is on the cusp of transformation.” It went on to predict that “dynamic and agile teams will become the norm,” offices will be anchor points rather than the place we go everyday for work, and short software development cycles will require a vastly more nimble business model. The paper also predicted a change from the employer’s market of today, to a market where high-quality employees will be in such high demand, and the connectivity so robust, that they will be working from where they want, when they want and how they want.
So what does this have to do with making mistakes? Everything!
To move from where we are now to the workplace of the next decade, we must make mistakes. We need to experiment with different software platforms; Yes, there will be mistakes, but that’s okay. We need to experiment all the time. We need to make many more mistakes.
What mistakes can you make today? Can you encourage the people around you to jump into a discussion with insufficient knowledge? Could you encourage someone to voice an opinion or take some action without all the knowledge? Oh, hell! Let’s be careless and carefree today!
The more I reflect on my business and personal life, mistakes have been so prevalent that yep, my entire life has been mistake after mistake; One big, happy, glorious mistake!
Whoops, gotta go–just missed a conference call and I’m hosting a lunch but forgot my wallet. But I’m smiling wide just the same. Oh how I love living this mistake-filled, hopeful, fun and wonderful life!