Continuing on my abundance vs. scarcity thread, in a post a few days ago I quoted from Chief Happiness Officer, Alexander Kjerulf, who notes that scarcity thinkers have little tolerance for mistakes, while the abundance mentality embraces mistakes for the learning that they bring. Reader Marie notes in comments that most people she knows are deathly afraid of making mistakes and that it's particularly true the higher up the ladder you go.
Trying to "mistake-proof" an organization is clearly a strategy for trying to control risk and hold on to your piece of the pie--a symptom of scarcity at work. One thing I love about the participatory culture of social media that's emerging, though, is that there seems to be a higher tolerance for mistakes, particularly if you learn from them. Now it's about rapid prototyping, trying lots of iterations of something to see how they work and making refinements to the glitches along the way. Blogs, wikis and social networks by their nature must embrace mistakes--their rapid publishing options mean that we are always revising and correcting ourselves.
Nonprofits in my experience are deathly afraid of mistakes. It's one of the reasons that in many of them it takes so long for anything to get done--staff have to endlessly tinker BEFORE something is released to try to remove all possibility for error. And because they've spent the time on this and because it's so painful to admit mistakes, when one is made, there's a tendency to brush things under the rug rather than to admit the error and do something about it. I also think that this fear of mistakes is a big impediment to nonprofits trying out social media. What if something goes wrong? What if they say something in a blog that they shouldn't have? What if employees put incorrect information into the organizational wiki? What if they allow comments and a contributor says something that makes the organization look bad?
It occurs to me, then, that another route out of scarcity is to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities and to make learning from mistakes a part of the organizational culture. In How to Make Mistakes, Paul Lemberg makes some helpful suggestions:
- Don't penalize mistakes. Encourage, or even reward them.
- Have a "mistake of the month" meeting where you dissect what's gone wrong, not to blame who made the mistake, but to learn from it.
- Get in the habit of rapid prototyping where you get out a "good enough" version of something, making it clear that it's a prototype, and then you refine through several iterations based on feedback and usage.
- Avoid the witch hunt when someone makes a mistake. Instead, cast your mistake makers as heroes who are helping your organization learn.
- Create a company of learners with a formal debriefing policy. Get in the habit of debriefing on everything you do to identify what went well, what didn't and to plan for how you'll handle things the next time around.
- Forget about "total quality" and focus on the 80/20 rule. Use the errors you make as opportunities to generate new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Of course the point of a culture that embraces mistakes is to create a process that learns from them. Repeating the same mistakes over and over again is NOT what we're looking for. Yet ironically when we have a culture that insists mistakes can't occur, this is when are most likely to repeat them. To learn from an experience, you must acknowledge what has happened and figure out what needs to change as a result. Creating a culture that accepts mistakes as a natural part of the process of taking risks and of getting better at what you do is another way operate from an abundance mentality.