We can all make mistakes, so I advocate for learning from mistakes through my book, podcast, and speaking. I do my best to learn from my mistakes, so I don't repeat them. I fail to meet that standard sometimes, and I try to learn from those moments (as I shared in this recent post).
A few times now, a friend has sent me a photo or tagged me on a LinkedIn post about a sign similar to the one below. They assume I'd love the sign and the sentiment. Mistakes are proof that you're trying?
Mistakes are proof that you are trying. That's true. The surest way to not make mistakes is to not try. “Not trying” is usually not an option.
But how do I feel about that sign? It depends on the setting and the circumstances.
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If this was posted in a classroom, I think the message would be a positive reinforcement of a “growth mindset” and a helpful reminder to students that it's natural to make mistakes when learning something new.
I wouldn't want to see this sign in an airplane cockpit or in a Boeing factory. That message would be too flippant and mistakes that could kill a few hundred people in a single incident.
That's why pilots learn and practice in simulators–a safe setting to make mistakes.
In some situations, healthcare also uses simulators to practice and learn. That could include any of us who learn CPR on a “dummy”–another safe setting for learning through mistakes.
I also wouldn't want to see that sign in an operating room or surrounding rooms.
The photo that I shared above was posted in a hospital nursing unit. I don't think posting such a sign in that setting is appropriate. I think it's a mistake to do so.
Everybody is TRYING in that kind of environment. You don't need MISTAKES as proof of that.
Most mistakes in a healthcare setting (as in a cockpit) could have a very serious negative effect. We must work really hard to prevent such mistakes, such as medication errors. Some mistakes should never happen. And that doesn't mean pressuring people to be perfect in an unachievable superhuman sort of way. It means we use mistake-proofing and other systematic methods to reduce, if not eliminate, mistakes and the bad outcomes that result.
Two Types of Mistakes?
I think mistakes can be broken down into two broad categories:
- Process mistakes
- Innovation mistakes
This is similar to frameworks used by Prof. Amy Edmondson and others that break down failures into these categories:
- Basic failures
- Complex failures
- Intelligent failures
“Basic” and “complex” maps to “process mistakes.” Basic mistakes shouldn't happen in a known and repeatable process if we're able to do the right work the right way. Complex mistakes might be somewhat unprecedented or they might be the result of a brand new set of circumstances in a known work system.
“Mistakes” and “failures” aren't synonyms. Mistakes are actions (or inactions) that lead to a failure or some other bad result. Not all failures are caused by a mistake.
But back to the breakdown of things into two or three categories. I used the “basic, complex, intelligent” breakdown in my book, but as applied to mistakes. I think that framework is OK.
In hindsight, I think I made a mistake by not just using “process” and “innovation” as the breakdown. Maybe for a 2nd Edition of my book!
Process mistakes can be mistake-proofed. We can (and often must) work really hard (and creatively) to prevent them proactively. And when they occur (or when we have a near miss), we must learn from them, focusing on improvement instead of punishment.
Process mistakes are not proof that we're trying. Trying is not enough. Again, I think that sign is inappropriately flippant about serious mistakes.
I'm not saying we should make people feel bad about mistakes. Far from it. I'm not a fan of punishing people for mistakes. Remember that mistakes are, by definition, unintentional. Leaders can respond to mistakes with empathy. Nurses who make mistakes might need emotional support or mental health care after a mistake, as it can be traumatizing. We don't need to add more trauma through punishment… or a sign that might land badly after a serious mistake occurs.
Innovation mistakes are generally “bad decisions” that are made in attempts to improve or innovate. As Prof. John Grout said in his recent webinar, you generally can't mistake-proof against bad decisions.
I think that sign would be appropriate and helpful in innovation settings. If we're creating innovative marketing campaigns, “mistakes are proof that you are trying” might be more appropriate. Then again, if a marketing campaign intended to be “edgy” turns out to be “highly offensive to many” then I don't think that sentiment is great.
Within KaiNexus, an innovative software company, different types of work might include both process mistakes and innovation mistakes.
Launching a new feature that doesn't work perfectly… you might celebrate that mistake. And then improve the software or fix the bugs. When you punish innovation mistakes, people will protect themselves by being very cautious. You'll get less innovation.
Now, mistakes in payroll processes are something you'd want to mistake-proof. That sign might not be appropriate in a company's billing or accounting departments. But in the product, development, and marketing teams, you might expect, encourage, and celebrate innovation mistakes.
Not all mistakes are created equal. Our attitude about mistakes can't be exactly the same for all.
Don't celebrate process mistakes. Do acknowledge process mistakes. Do respond to them in a kind and constructive way that's focused on learning and improvement.
Innovation mistakes can be thought of and handled a little differently.
But in all cases — focus on learning, improvement, and prevention instead of punishment!
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Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation: