Screw Up, and Get Smart

How to make admitting mistakes as much a part of company culture as making them.

Who:

Katie Paine, founder and CEO, the Delahaye Group Inc.

What's your problem?

"We all make mistakes. But what really makes mistakes expensive is not admitting them right away. How do I get people not only to fess up but also to learn from their missteps?"

Tell me about it

"Business culture teaches us never to admit to our mistakes but to bury them instead - or to blame somebody else. And most personnel and project reviews don't really do much to uncover mistakes. If we wait until we've finished a project to conduct a postmortem, people will forget the mistake, or they'll build up a grudge against a coworker. Either way, we lose a learning opportunity."

What's your solution?

"Mistake of the Month. Several years ago, I overslept and missed a flight to a big client meeting. I walked into my next staff meeting, plunked 50 bucks down on the table, and said, 'If you can top my mistake, that money is yours.' Well, people started to own up to mistakes, and suddenly we had a flood of them: One of our sales guys had gone on a sales call without business cards; two of our people had arrived at Coca-Cola without their presentation materials. At every staff meeting since, we've set aside 30 minutes to write up the mistakes of the month on a whiteboard. Then we cast a vote on two categories: the mistake from which we've learned the most, and the one from which we've learned the least. The prize for the first category is access to a coveted downtown parking space for the following month. The person who made the mistake from which we've learned the least has to talk at the next meeting about why it will never happen again.

"Since 1989, we've recorded more than 2,000 mistakes. Once a mistake hits the whiteboard, it tends not to happen again. This practice has had a real impact on our work. Mistake of the Month also helps set my agenda as a leader. As mistakes go on the whiteboard, I ask myself, 'Do I need to be concerned about this?' Plus, it has become a bonding ritual. Once you go through it, you're a member of the club."

Before founding the Delahaye Group, a reputation-measurement firm, Katie Paine was director of corporate communications for Lotus Development Corp. For more information, visit the Web (www.delahaye.com).

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