Talent Tips: Oops! Learning from Our Mistakes

We can learn invaluable insights individually and collectively from our failures and unwanted mistakes at work.

By Roy Saunderson, President, Recognition Management Institute

When dealing with mistakes at work, I always think of a classic IBM story that demonstrates the attitude I hope all leaders will have whenever we make those painful errors in our jobs. Imagine being a mid-level executive at IBM and making a multimillion-dollar mistake. Apparently, the executive immediately approached then-CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., and tendered his resignation. Watson refused to fire him, saying he had just spent millions of dollars educating him, so why would he let him go now?

Failure is simply the outcome from any activity that doesn’t produce the desired results we expected. Some mistakes we can kick ourselves for afterward because hindsight shows we could have avoided them. Other situations are truly unavoidable and are simply the consequential negative outcomes from taking risks and experimenting.

However, most organizations don’t exactly excel at learning from failure and therein lies a big lesson to be learned for dealing with mistakes. Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Robert E. Gunther in their article, “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes” (Harvard Business Review, June 2006) note: “Although organizations need to make mistakes in order to improve, they go to great lengths to avoid anything resembling an error. That’s because most companies are designed for optimum performance rather than learning, and mistakes are seen as defects that need to be minimized.”

Steps to Take

If we listen to what author Jim Collins said at a recent ASTD conference, then “the only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive.” So assuming you have survived a recent individual or team-generated mistake or failure, what can we learn and how do we go about doing that?

We cannot be afraid of mistakes.

Any time you take a progressive and innovative stance on a problem or idea and start creatively experimenting, you inevitably will make mistakes. It’s the price of admission when you want to see if a theory, model, or process is going to work or not. But we cannot be afraid to share with leaders and colleagues what we have discovered—good or bad.

One of W. Edwards Deming’s 14 points was “Drive out fear.” He stated: “Many employees are afraid to ask questions or take a position, even when they do not understand what the job is or what is right or wrong. People will continue to do things the wrong way, or not do them at all. The economic loss from fear is appalling. It is necessary for better quality and productivity that people feel secure.”

Getting people to feel more secure to make mistakes requires all of us to be vulnerable and open, so we will eliminate acts of denial and blaming others. It requires solid ownership of any and all outcomes, so people won’t hide the mistakes or evidence that identify where errors were made and by whom.

Leaders must communicate and acknowledge that if a company truly wants to be progressive and innovative, mistakes will be a natural by-product of such a strategy. We need to be more open and transparent about mistakes, share what we’ve learned, and figure out how, if possible, to prevent these in the future. We also need to encourage continual learning and development along the journey.

Set up a learning process for mistakes.

It has been wisely said that if we are prepared, we will not fear. Similarly, we need to be prepared for mistakes to occur because they will and should. Then we must ask ourselves if we are ready to learn from them.

Schoemaker and Gunther go so far as to advocate making mistakes knowingly because most innovation stays within the comfort zone of experimenters’ initial assumptions anyway. Their suggested process for helping decision-makers process between smart mistakes and dumb ones is:

  1. Identify assumptions.
  2. Select assumptions for testing.
  3. Rank the assumptions.
  4. Execute the mistake.
  5. Learn from the process.

It is essential to create open lines of communication through sit-down discussions and candid written reports to gather insights on why people felt an outcome went wrong. It’s an opportunity to explore what could be done differently next time. And it is a chance to see the decision-making flow to review how individuals—leaders and implementers—can make better decisions in the future.

Celebrate mistakes—really!

Commenting on some expensive mistakes made at Microsoft, Bill Gates once said, “In the corporate world, when someone makes a mistake, everyone runs for cover. At Microsoft, I try to put an end to that kind of thinking. It’s fine to celebrate success, but it’s more important to heed the lessons of failure. How a company deals with mistakes suggests how well it will bring out the best ideas and talents of its people, and how effectively it will respond to change.”

We tend to only recognize, reward, and celebrate the “best-of-the-best” success or highest achievement in organizations. However, if we really want to encourage and reinforce real innovation and solid growth and improvements, we should acknowledge mistakes by sharing and broadcasting the lessons learned and the accompanying stories instead of keeping these points of wisdom to an elite few.

Take the classic example from Dr. Spence Silver, a 3M Company adhesive tape engineer. In striving to find an adhesive with a strong bond, he developed a product that resulted with weak adhesion. Innovation is what 3M is all about, and it is a company that learns from its mistakes. So Silver shared his results with his fellow coworkers to see what could be salvaged, learned, or improved. One colleague, Arthur Fry, was a member of his church choir and had always wanted to bookmark hymn pages with something that would not fall out of the hymnal. You’ve probably heard this story before and know the outcome is the creation of the Post-it Note and all its ancillary spinoff products.

Now go and get a Post-it Note and write on it: “Make Mistakes and Learn.”

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and president of the Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit www.Rideau.com.

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