Why Deliberate Mistakes Can Be A Great Career Move

A consulting company deliberately made mistakes that put their most deeply held beliefs to the test. Instead of proving themselves right, they proved themselves wrong–and made a million bucks in the process. Some advice on making good mistakes of your own.

Why Deliberate Mistakes Can Be A Great Career Move

Psychologists encourage the use of a technique they call “considering the opposite,” where we stop ourselves from drawing premature conclusions and, instead, ponder whether we might be misinterpreting the evidence. For instance, “I think my husband is selfish–but, wait, maybe I’m just ignoring all the times he’s looking out for me.” Or, at work: “I think my colleague is being rude and abrupt–but what if he’s not being abrupt and is just trying to respect my time? (Oops, and what if he thinks I’m disrespecting his time when I try to chat?)”


This simple technique of considering the opposite has been shown, across multiple studies, to reduce many otherwise thorny cognitive biases.

The ultimate form of “considering the opposite” might be what Paul Schoemaker did when he convened his colleagues at DSI–Decision Strategies International, the management consulting firm he’d founded–to discuss an important matter of business. He wanted them to make a mistake.

Schoemaker, a decision researcher and consultant, was dead serious. He wanted his colleagues to help him plan and execute a deliberate mistake, as a way of testing their assumptions about DSI’s business.

“Everyone at our firm was willing to believe that some of our beliefs were flawed and we should subject them to a test,” Schoemaker said, “but as soon as we got concrete about it, people kind of thought it was not very wise or even silly. So as a leader I stepped in and said, ‘I’ll take the blame for it.’ After all, leaders always say, ‘I learned the most from my mistakes.’ Well, why leave the mistakes to serendipity? Why not take some control of the process and make mistakes that you’re most likely to learn from?”

As he describes in his book, Brilliant Mistakes, his team started by listing some of the key assumptions underlying their efforts, an exercise that surfaced the “conventional wisdom” that, in most organizations, is never articulated or questioned.

After they’d identified ten key assumptions, they whittled the list down to three–those they were least confident about and that, if proven wrong, had the highest potential payoff for the business:

  1. Young MBAs don’t work well for us. We need experienced consultants on the team.
  2. The firm can be successfully run by a president who is not a major billing senior consultant.
  3. It is not worthwhile to respond to RFPs. Clients who use RFPs are usually price shopping or are going through the motions to justify a choice they have already made. (RFPs are requests for proposals. Customers send out RFPs to attract vendors to bid on their business.)

A further round of assessment led them to select number 3 as “having the highest potential of benefiting from a strategy of deliberate mistakes.” Now they were ready to make their mistake.

The firm’s policy had been never to respond to an RFP, but they resolved to respond to the next one that came over the transom, which, as it happened, came from a regional electric utility. The DSI team submitted a proposal with a budget of about $200,000, a price that reflected their normal fees but that they suspected would be well out of the client’s league. Schoemaker said, “To our surprise, the electric utility invited our firm to visit with the CEO and the senior management team to explore not only the project in question but others as well.”

DSI would eventually land over $1 million in consulting business from the utility. “Not a bad return for making a small mistake,” said Schoemaker.

Why couldn’t you run Schoemaker’s game plan in your organization? Could you create a “Mistake of the Year” program? To be clear, you shouldn’t do it expecting a million-dollar surprise to pop out. Most of your “deliberate mistakes” will fail, and in fact that failure should be encouraging, because it means you’ve been making the right assumptions all along. Beyond the mistake itself, the willingness to test your assumptions has its own value. It signals to your colleagues that your work will be conducted based on evidence, not folklore or politics.

Excerpted from Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Copyright 2013 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Published by arrangement with Crown Business, a division of Randomhouse, Inc.

[Image: Flickr user Mdavidford]