The Best Way for Execs to Identify and Handle Mistakes

When given a choice between that of fault and perfection; it goes without dispute that we all – despite our professional role or status – would choose the latter.  After all, perfection is often synonymous with excellence, which inevitably leads to success; and past performance has shown this to be especially true among business leaders seeking to make an indelible mark on their industry of choice.

Yet, despite the ultimate quest for success, even the most powerful and well-known companies of our day have a few mistakes and/or poor decisions under their belts. Of course, it is without doubt that any organization with a modicum of success has suffered a few stumbling points along the way, creating the frequently accurate perception that mistakes are often an unavoidable, if not inescapable portion of the path toward success.

Identifying and Handling Mistakes - Coworkers at laptop_desk

Nevertheless, how should executives translate this standpoint of forbearance concerning the occasional business blunder toward their work staff?

Finding Balance

There is the notion that when business leaders are overly lenient and tolerant of mistakes in their organization, they may be conveying the message that the neither the work nor the consequences of certain errors are to be taken seriously. Conversely, executives who find it necessary to reprimand employees every time they make even the smallest of errors may find they are ultimately alienating their employees, discouraging them from acknowledging or owning up to their mistakes.

However, the best leaders develop a learning culture that enables employees to take responsibility for mistakes. Rather than using blame or criticism, these leaders advise their employees on how mistakes can be avoided in the future, offering them opportunities for improvement.

Unfortunately, a minimal approach of simply telling employees not to repeat their mistakes — rather than encouraging them to learn from their failures and even offering them the chance to remedy the situation — has become markedly scarce.

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually, we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.”

-Richelle E. Goodrich

According to Amy Edmondson, a professor of management at Harvard University, “Failure is sometimes inevitable, but it is not always bad”. However, learning from mistakes made within the organization may not always be easy.

Edmondson stated that for the last several years, most organizations’ findings as to why mistakes occurred tended to be somewhat superficial, such as, “Employees failed to follow company procedure,” or self-serving, as in, “Consumers are not yet ready for our great product.”

If organizations truly want to learn from mistakes, Edmondson pointed out that there are certain cultural beliefs and conventional views of success that need to be discarded:

1.  Stop the blame game.

Whether they admit it or not, many executives find fault in team members who fail at their tasks. This is likely due to the fact that most business leaders feel that if employees are not blamed for their failures, they may not work as hard as they should to produce their best output.

When Edmondson asked executives how many of the failures within their companies were actually “blameworthy”, their answers ranged from 2 percent to 5 percent. Yet, when she asked them how many of the failures were treated as “blameworthy”, on the other hand, they admitted, “after a pause or a laugh,” that the amount was closer to 70 percent to 90 percent. Consequently, many failures are not reported and the opportunities to learn from them are ultimately lost.

2.  Recognize different categories of failure.

  • Preventable

These failures may actually be considered “bad”, since they are avoidable. They likely occur when employees deviate from a “closely defined processes” within the organization’s routine operations. Proper training and support can help guide employees in consistently following the processes. Providing these conditions are in place, when employees are unable to follow certain requirements, it is usually due to inattention, lack of ability, or simply deviance from the rules. When this happens, some solutions can be developed and implements.  (i.e. providing a checklist of tasks).

  • Complexity-related

These failures take place due to unpredictable situations; for example, system failure in complex organizations, such as aircraft carriers. Serious failures can be avoided by following optimum safety and risk management practices; but sometimes small failures are unavoidable. By identifying and correcting these small failures, subsequent and consequential failures can be prevented.

  • Intelligent

These failures can be considered “good.” These occur when there is a need for experimentation because the situation has not been encountered before and may never happen again. For example, designing an especially innovative product or testing customers’ reactions within a brand new market. In 2016, Samsung presented the Galaxy Note 7 with much hype, even offering a discounted price for “early bird” purchases. After a few weeks, several customers reported that their phones caught fire and/or exploded. Samsung issued a recall immediately and as of January 2017, the company has clarified that the cause of the fire was related to a battery issue. The company is now arranging a compensation program so that Note 7 owners can obtain a new Galaxy S8 device which is situated for a March 2017 release date. Although this has significantly affected Samsung’s revenue, the company continues to produce quality mobile devices that consumers continue to purchase.

3.  Focus on what happened, instead of “who did it”.

Rather than instantly seeking a scapegoat or culprit to blame for a mistake, focus on why things went wrong, analyzing the facts and looking for opportunities to research how the failure may have been avoided would be more productive. If getting to the bottom of the problem does involve or include a particular individual within the company, make a concerted effort to remain neutral toward to employee, concentrating more on what tasks and measures can be taken to rectify the situation.

Organizations learn from failure through:

  • Detection

Most of the time, costly failures can be spotted easily. However, the key to avoiding such failures is to identify them early. Unfortunately, some failures are not discovered early enough because members of the team are reluctant to report bad news to their superiors and coworkers.  However, in many cases, mistakes of this kind can have disastrous or catastrophic results.  One example was the tragic 2003 explosion of the Columbia Space Shuttle which killed seven crew members. It was eventually discovered that the cause of the explosion was a piece of foam which had broken off the left side of the shuttle at launch, but the CAIB cited the causes of the accident to include factors that were preventable, had the proper concerns been properly expressed.

  • Analysis

When failure has been detected, organizations should look for the root cause. This can be difficult for some people because examining failures in depth can be emotionally unpleasant and can lower one’s self-esteem. Hence, most people would choose to avoid failure analysis, if given the choice, as it requires a great deal patience and openness. In the case of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, the piece of foam was the first-order cause of the failure. The second-order causes were related to the organization’s strict hierarchy and schedule which may have made it difficult for engineers to discuss their concerns.

  • Experimentation

Researchers know that, although certain experiment will result in success, approximately 70 percent will fail. Despite this knowledge, however, they proceed with their research because they recognize that each failure provides valuable and useful information which must be obtained prior to their critics or competitors.  Without this necessary step, progress toward prevention of future errors cannot be obtained.

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The Takeway

Naturally, leaders do not look for or welcome mistakes. But these mistakes also offer an opportunity to leaders to rise to the challenge and reinvent themselves and their businesses. Separating the preventable from the intelligent and the inane from the disastrous is vital; and although many can lead an organization, it is the true leaders who take responsibility when failures do take place. They do not blame solely blame individuals for problems that occur. Rather, they assess the situations, identify the mistakes, and take measures toward their future prevention. Effective leaders focus on the best solution that can be applied to rectify the circumstance.

By following this strategy, your organization becomes a collaborative learning environment where all team members will ultimately contribute to the overall success of the business.

Fred Coon, CEO


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