One of the real challenges when you first start work is the ingraining of a culture particularly in corporate environments in the public and private sectors, towards not making mistakes.  You are critiqued on your work and your approach, with a strong focus on your technical expertise being right.  It tends to drive a very risk adverse culture and conditions you to think that you need to slow down and get it perfect before you finalise anything.

This conditioning can often extend further back to your family environment.   Risk adverse, cautious and protective parenting can contribute to this where children grow up thinking that mistakes are bad things.  Things that we should not do.  When we make mistakes, we are not being careful, we are not getting it right and we are told this.

This has an impact on us to then not push boundaries, be risk averse, and generally be fearful of extending ourselves.  Similar to an electric fence with an animal, we have been conditioned to think that if we look to be bold and push outside the square, we will get a shock, scolded or something worse.   This is very sad when you think about how important it is to take risks, be bold, push the limits and drive innovation particularly in a changing world.

I heard a very good Chief Executive of a sporting organisation talk through the difference between mistakes in terms of there being two types.  I will try to do justice to his explanation by differentiating the two:

  • The first type of mistake is where we are fearful, avoidant and hold back.  We play on our man, wait for the ball to come down to us and react.  The opposition then scores by being bold while we are sitting back;
  • The second type of mistake is where we take the game on.  We take risks, be bold, create the play from a turnover or opportunity and then run forward being proactive to score.  On the way to goals, we execute a skill incorrectly leading to a turnover to the opposition which results in a goal.

The point that the Chief Executive was making was that when we then communicate to staff, children, and stakeholders around the mistake, we need to make sure we coach in the right way.  We need to be able to distinguish the difference between the two mistakes and reward for mistake two and explain why mistake one is not the way we want to play the game.  We want to be bold, proactive and ensure the ball is in our court because we have taken a chance.

The impact of this is significant particularly when you work in small businesses.  This is more important in the case when you are working in a fast paced business, subject to change constantly, competing globally and looking for ways to innovate, drive improvement and keep ahead of the game.  We actively encourage our staff to take the game on, try and test new concepts online, bring new products to market and innovate with our customers.  I want them to make mistakes but do it fast and do it regularly because this is the best way to learn quickly.  We want to learn quickly so that we can continue to move up the curve of high performance and challenge ourselves to take risks as this will be the only we will succeed.

Fail fast to learn quick.  This was something I would have struggled to comprehend during my corporate life but I embrace it now because without it, we would not be able to have the success we are having.  As leaders, we all need to create the environment for this to occur as it is the only way that we will stay ahead of the pack in a global market that are all hungry to succeed.