Top Execs On The Power Of Good Mistakes

Mistakes—as long as they're not thoughtless—can do your business more good than bad. You just need to make sure they're the right kind of mistakes.

Who thinks creativity blossoms in an environment where mistakes are banned?

Not me, not you. Not anyone who wants to generate a steady flow of ideas in work and life.

"A mistake isn’t a failure," says riCardo Crespo, global creative chief at 20th Century Fox. "It’s a masked innovation, waiting to be revealed."

Most folks recognize the value of mistakes in an innovative workplace. But there’s a catch—if thoughtless mistakes are allowed to spread like weeds, they’ll soon choke out talents and funds necessary for workable solutions. Limitless mistakes simply aren’t sustainable in effective organizations.

So what to do? The answer lies in selectivity. Use these three guidelines to help separate workable mistakes from worrisome ones:

1. Support only good mistakes.

Good mistakes are strong actions, bad results. Bad mistakes are sloppy or lazy efforts, bad results.

Promote good mistakes. Pull the plug on bad ones. And when evaluating errors, keep in mind that a mistake’s true value often depends on where it occurs in the creative process. "When it comes to making ‘good’ mistakes, timing is everything," says Ken Carbone, partner at Carbone Smolan agency and co-author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership. "What might not work today has a good chance of working tomorrow."

2. Allow only original mistakes.

Don’t tolerate the same mistake happening a second or third time. Learning from mistakes, not repeating them, is the path to rapid innovation.

"Communications and marketing shift so fast that you must often go with the best intent and later read results," says Tim Hale, head of design management at Fossil, the clothing and accessories firm. "This inherently yields some mistakes, but, if you’re nimble, those mistakes lead to learning that leads to breakthroughs."

Fox’s Crespo agrees. "A mistake is a misguided action—literally a ‘missed take,’" he says. "Learn and move on. Repeating a mistake time and again is a failure."

3. Encourage only rescued mistakes.

If all mistakes turn into costly failures, they will soon bankrupt pocketbook and patronage. The key is to rescue mistakes before they become catastrophes.

Think about which one of these three people you would want on your team: Jason, who never makes mistakes and consequently serves up ordinary, predictable ideas; Josh, who takes risks that result in bold ideas and some mistakes, but when those mistakes are made, he simply shrugs his shoulders and walks away; or Jessica, who also takes risks that result in strong ideas and several mistakes, but who admits her mistakes when they happen and quickly switches to rescue mode.

Most of us would gravitate to Jessica. She understands that what happens immediately after a mistake determines its magnitude. Are you and your teams willing to quickly admit when things go wrong? Are steps taken to stop the bleeding? The difference between a minor difficulty and a major disaster typically depends on the ability to rescue.

And sometimes rescuing must extend beyond just preventing calamities, says Steve Benfield, brand director at the business analytics firm SAS. Rescue may also involve restoring credibility.

"A mistake made by our creative team a few years ago was, unfortunately, widely visible within our company," he says. "We quickly fixed the problem, but we also needed to reassure executives that such mistakes weren’t common or costly.

"So we began capturing information on our mistakes and their related costs. By analyzing projects, we showed an error rate of less than one percent and proved that any associated costs were well contained."

Rescuing mistakes may also require letting down our gates and inviting in people from other areas to assist. "As creatives, we not only have to recognize and admit mistakes," says Fossil’s Tim Hale. "We must also be willing to sometimes step back and allow other perspectives to contribute to the solution."

[Image: Flickr user Sean Winters]

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