How did you learn to walk? By falling over. How did you learn to speak? By coming out with a lot of gibberish first. And if you've learned to touch type, the chances are that your first efforts were slow and undecipherable. Mistakes are how we learn—and that is as true of companies as for individuals. 

I made one of my most memorable mistakes when I was running a company, based in Boston, that produced knowledge management software. Having lived the previous thirty years in Europe, I was keen that we should have an international customer base, and I believed that my background equipped us for early expansion. Thanks to great contacts, I secured a number of meetings with potential customers in England and Ireland and rushed enthusiastically into meetings with them.

It was a disaster. I might have grown up in Europe but by the time I returned to sell there, I'd become an American. I moved too quickly, too aggressively, and I didn't listen. Why should I? I thought I already knew everything about European markets.

A friend and colleague who had set up one of my meetings put it to me bluntly: "Wow, you've really turned into an American!" What he meant was this: Europeans, typically, invest a lot of time and energy in building relationships. The sale is built on top of that—which means that if the deal starts to fall apart, the relationship might save it. Americans, typically, try to land sales first and, once secured, use that as the basis of a relationship; Why bother getting to know people if you aren't going to do business with them? Both ways of doing business have their advantages; what matters is fitting the approach to the locale.

But I didn't know that. And by the time I learned—the hard way—it was mostly too late. I was tempted to brush the failure under the carpet. Instead, I talked about it in a series of conversations within our leadership team that provoked a lot of productive thinking about how and where to focus our sales effort. In the long term, it made us all a lot smarter. 

Almost all mistakes contain a lot of learning, if you're smart and humble enough to suck the juice from them. If instead you're inclined to cover them up as fast as possible, you miss the opportunity to learn. While it's been very fashionable lately to portray Steve Jobs as a super-human genius, the truth is that Jobs made a lot of big mistakes but was smart enough to derive big learning from them. The best business people I know aren't those who know everything but who have the courage and honesty to learn most along the way.

You have until February 1 to enter the Wharton School’s Brilliant Mistake competition, co-sponsored by Inc, which is dedicated to the proposition that making mistakes can be the smartest thing you can do. The most brilliant mistake wins a complementary registration for two at Inc’s Growth Companies event in March 2012, free airfare on Southwest, a seat at a VIP seminar with conference speakers, and other goodies. Go to the Brilliant Mistakes Contest website to learn how to enter.

Published on: Dec 29, 2011
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