Learning by Error: How to Make Hay When Things Go Hay-Wire
You know the concept of dark data? Most companies are sitting on valuable information that either they fail to use or don’t realize they have in the first place. One of the most valuable strains of this dark data are mistakes that well-meaning employees make in pursuit of innovation. Usually, your employees will quickly sweep the story of their mistake under the rug to minimize reputational damage. That can be an enormous missed opportunity. As the boss, you want to bring these dark data into the light so that your company can beneft from their silver linings.
Some ideas on how to do that:
Create a mistake bank. John Caddell founder of the Caddell Insight Group, set up a public website where anyone can deposit their mistakes--anonymously if they wish--so that others don’t fall into the same trap. If you do the same internally, make sure to include near-misses, just as the Federal Aviation Administration does, and for the same reason. For example, the Danish company Grundfoss, the world’s leading manufacturer of pumps, asks workers on the assembly line to record whenever something almost goes wrong. They learn as much from these near misses as from actual screw-ups--and at a much lower cost.
Run a competition. When I published my book Brilliant Mistakes with Wharton Digital Press, the publisher invited people to submit stories of mistakes that were a net gain--that is, mistakes that had fortuitously led to advances that more than made up for the cost of the mistake. Start running such competitions in your own company to foster a genuine learning culture or, in a related vein, orchestrate Innovation Tournaments.
Hand out a Golden Egg Award. One company president began asking managers to share mistakes at their monthly meeting. At first the managers were reluctant to open up about any egg on their faces, but eventually these confessionals became a favorite part of the session. The president devised a simple and modest trophy--a L’eggs pantyhose plastic egg with some gold spray paint--to honor the best mistake of the month. At first the trophies stayed in the desk drawer of the (un)lucky winner. But over time, winners became proud enough to place the trophy on their desk for an entire month.
Foster limited sloppiness. The biologist and Nobel Laureate Max Delbrück (1906-1981) recommended what he called “the principle of limited sloppiness.” He advised his students to be sloppy enough in their lab experiments to allow for the unexpected, but not so sloppy that they could not identify the reasons for any anomalous results. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is a famous example of the power of limited sloppiness. Fleming let his petri dishes get badly contaminated one summer and then noticed that certain spores that had blown in through the open window inhibited bacterial growth at the edges. In essence, he pulled an epic medical advance from his trash can.
Make deliberate mistakes. Bob Galvin, a longtime CEO of Motorola, was renowned for encouraging contrarian thinking. He wanted people to challenge themselves by remaining constantly in motion. If the train goes right and everyone jumps on board, try to make the case why it should go left instead, he would counsel. After projects were ranked for funding and the cut-off line drawn at, say, project 15, he would find funds for projects 16 and 17 as well. David Ogilvy, founder of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, did roughly the same: he would run advertisements that he and his team did not believe would work just to test their theories.
Discuss Work Mistakes in Performance Reviews.When giving reviews, make sure to ask your team for examples of learning from mistakes. If people can’t supply credible examples, warn them that the next time around this will cost them in their bonus since they clearly are not taking enough risk. Apart from individual reviews, orchestrate team discussions. After one hospital looked into medical errors, they realized that nurses were most likely to make drug mistakes--about type, dosage, timing, side effects etc.--when they got interrupted. So now, when they administer medicines, nurses wear a cap or other sign that signals clearly “don’t disturb.” Drug errors have dropped significantly.
Training and Learning. Most people don’t understand why mistakes can be so valuable or how to learn from them. To make the connection clear, first teach them to frame any mistake as a learning opportunity. Remember that A.G. Laffley, CEO of P&G, once famously labeled mistake as gifts. Second, emphasize that perfection is not the ultimate goal; learning is. British consultancy NixonMcInnes celebrates its employees’ confessions of mistakes at a meeting held every few weeks, which it calls the "Church of Fail."
Mining the dark data of mistakes is not easy but the rewards can be great. After all, you are trying to change people’s minds as well as your organization’s culture. Both kinds of change are urgent today. At this moment of rapid, momentous change, the race no longer goes to the swiftest. It goes to the swiftest learners.
PAUL SCHOEMAKER | Research Director, Wharton School
Paul J. H. Schoemaker is the founder and chairman of Decision Strategies International. A speaker, professor, and entrepreneur, Schoemaker is research director at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton, where he teaches strategic decision making. His latest book is Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future.