Mistakes

Posted on October 28, 2009

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I was reading a novel the other day, and it got me thinking about mistakes. In The Ice Limit, some of the characters have a disagreement over hiring a ship captain for an expedition. The captain has an alcohol problem, and wrecked her last assignment because of it. She took responsibility and put herself in rehab. One of the characters argues that someone who made a mistake is 90% likely not to repeat the mistake.

I have no idea whether the authors’ statistics are correct. My thinking focused on mistakes and leadership, and mistakes and recovery.

We all make mistakes. I made one during the First Gulf War. I fell asleep on watch. It doesn’t matter how much danger we were in. I let down my platoon. I don’t remember if I ever admitted it to a supervisor. I do remember that I was ashamed. Since then, I’ve been able to stay awake at will. Between my own morale and fitness, I have the discipline to stay focused and get the job done. I made a mistake, I accepted the responsibility, and I learned and developed so I wouldn’t make it again. I recovered, but it’s the nature of military assignments that my platoon never had a chance to see that, and to regain their trust in me.

That led me to mistakes and leadership. It’s a tricky area. It’s important for leaders to create a culture where workers can admit errors. It’s important for workers to notice their errors, and correct them. There’s an old saw that a good worker brings the boss solutions, not problems. Let’s say that, through a mistake on your part, a consumer product has the wrong price on its package. The wrong thing to do is hide. You could go to your boss and throw yourself on her mercy. The best thing to do is act immediately to correct the problem for the rest of the production run, get the details for at least one fix for the existing packages (e.g., stickers and instructions for retailers or the warehouse), and then go to your boss with an admission and a recommendation. If you have a good boss, she’s going to accept that mistakes happen, and act on your recommendation. If you have a bad boss, she’s going to have a breakdown.

Leaders have to admit their own mistakes. When I was just starting out at Wizards of the Coast, I walked into a post. I was saying something over my shoulder to a co-worker, and when I turned around, BAM. Walked into it hard enough to drive the frame of my glasses into the bridge of my nose and cut my eyebrow. By the time I got to a first aid kit, I’d had to admit the mistake half a dozen times, to explain the blood streaming down my face. The next morning, one of the guys on the team I managed had created a cardboard tombstone with my name on it. He placed it and some lilies by the post. I had an urge to get angry. My team was making fun of me. Then my training, and sense of humor, kicked in. I started laughing. When I did so, it started a culture in which my people could admit mistakes. They were ready to accept that, “There’s no such thing as bad news; there’s only information I can use to plan.”

I still have that cardboard tombstone. It reminds me to think about the work culture that I create as a leader.

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