Mistakes are GOOD! Well, sometimes . . . . . .

These days we’re always being encouraged to innovate – to do things differently and improve.

Sometimes when we try to do things differently, we make mistakes. It seems that making mistakes is an essential part of innovation.

Sometimes the mistakes can be better than our first intentions! In 1928 Alexander Fleming was working with a bacterial culture which became contaminated and died. This ‘mistake’ led to the discovery of penicillin, which has saved countless lives ever since.

But unfortunately, sometimes the mistakes just make things worse, and then we have to learn from our mistakes and try again – what used to be called ‘learning by trial and error’.

In these days of extended accountabilities and media spotlights, risk is invariably seen as bad.

But if we can’t make mistakes, won’t we expose ourselves to the biggest risk of all – the risk of reducing our capacity to innovate and improve?

If we can’t learn from making mistakes, are we making a rod for our own backs?

So why don’t companies come right out and say “It’s ok to make mistakes”?

Of course there would have to be safeguards, but how would you feel if your employer said it’s ok to make mistakes:

  • Provided they are honest mistakes, made with the best of intentions and not because you were just being sloppy or negligent;
  • Provided you take responsibility for your mistakes;
  • Provided you learn from your mistakes, taking steps to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again; and
  • Provided you help your colleagues learn from your mistakes, sharing your experience with them in order to reduce the risk of them ever making the same mistake that you made.

If your company had a ‘Mistakes Policy’ like that, would you feel supported, more able to innovate and improve?

If this wouldn’t work for you, what would you need?


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9 Responses to “Mistakes are GOOD! Well, sometimes . . . . . .”

  1. brainteaser Says:

    Hello Graham!

    This is a very thought-provoking post. What wisdom!

    First, I like to tell you I so love this line:

    But if we can’t make mistakes, won’t we expose ourselves to the biggest risk of all – the risk of reducing our capacity to innovate and improve?

    Also, I am considering the “mistakes policy” you’ve just outlined and well, I’d like to try that if I had a company.

    At first thought, it’s kinda scary, because well, we do know how some people aren’t mature enough to take full responsibility of their mistakes. Humans do have a “blaming others” culture.

    But then, on closer analysis, I believe this just might work.

    Yeah, I’d really like to try it, with all the “provisions” you’ve outlined, of course.

    Have a good day.

  2. catchthevision Says:

    Thanks Sherma, great to hear from you.

    I’d like to think that the idea of a ‘Mistakes Policy’ is about helping people to behave as ‘adults’, owning up to the consequences of our actions, and therefore working as ‘adults’ in a team of ‘adults’ (rather than being a ‘child’ employee working for the ‘parent’ employer).

    And I reckon that one of the first steps of becoming a confident adult is being able to take responsibility – and many don’t do that because they are afraid the sky will fall on them.

    So that’s the idea behind this. If anyone can think of ways to strengthen the concept, it would be great to hear.

    Incidentally, although I believe that a formal ‘Mistakes Policy’ could be great for the workplace, I wonder if it could help in voluntary activity, where people do things for community benefit? Could this form part of a system of ‘ground rules’?

  3. catchthevision Says:

    I have been pointed towards a site with interested sayings, and there’s a link to it now on the Blogroll.

    A saying by Randy Pausch ( 1960-2008 ) from that site is “Be willing to apologize. Proper apologies have three parts: 1) What I did was wrong. 2) I’m sorry that I hurt you. 3) How do I make it better? It’s the third part that people tend to forget…. Apologize when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself.”

    I was pleased to see these wise words and, hopefully the draft ‘Mistakes Policy’ embodies some of the thinking. Any suggested improvements would still be welcome.

    Might it be that a properly run ‘Mistakes Policy’ could be akin to the way in which ‘Near Misses’ are now regarded in the world of Health & Safety as precious gifts?

  4. kazae Says:

    It’s great that we share the same thinking on this! And I gotta agree with the 3 parts to an apology, splendid.

    Well, and here’s my 2 cents worth.

    Sadly, human being human. Most of us have been programmed to take the beaten road, where many others have. It’s a social norm that binds all humans to avoid making mistakes, and worse still, start pointing fingers and play the blame game when we’ve committed a mistake.

    I also think that breaking out of this social norm will require tremendous effort, but it is not impossible. And what better place to start that off than within the company, with a supportive ‘Mistakes Policy’ as you’ve highlighted. That way, it’d be a small step to implementing this culture we share.

    A mistake policy could be designed in such a way that employers clearly state that mistakes are not recorded if the employees could rectify it and learn from it. To do so, the company could come up with a mistake report form, where the gist of it would consists of:

    1) what mistakes were committed
    2) why was it committed
    3) how was it committed
    4) steps to counter it in the future (innovate solutions)

    Also, having the motto of “To err is human, to learn is wisdom” included within the company’s culture or core values might help drill the mentality deeper within the employees’.


  5. zeemerblock Says:

    This blog is so interesting. I can only say one thing. There would be no point in living if mistakes don’t exist. If everything is so perfect, life would be so boring!

    Take care…

  6. zheller Says:

    Very intriguing post. As a proponent of innovation at every level, I have to agree with the mindset laid out here. It seems that the bigger a company gets, the smaller the room for error. This leads to conservatism and protectionism instead of the strategy and innovation that got them to be so great in the first place.

    I will continue to look for more updates on this topic here.

    Be Innovation – http://www.zachheller.com

  7. Vrushali Says:

    Hey Graham,

    Its indeed a Lovely post !
    I would just like to say only one thing…we all realize that everyone will make a mistake from time to time, so we have to institute a policy to help those that are new to the game. Be it professional or personal. But as always we reserve the right to change these rules when we see fit, that could be either adding to them or taking away certain outdated rules. It is our job to familiarize ourselves with these.

    So I now agree to your point of having the “Mistakes Policy” in an organization.

    Wat say?

    Have a good day :-).

    Vrushali / netsyscon4hr.wordpress.com

  8. netsysconhr Says:


    I feel most organizations are learning to accept mistakes. Willing to extend another chance. As you said there wdnt be a need for innovation without them.
    The mistake policy you spoke about sounds workable. Kazae’s mistake report sounds good. However this would ofcourse involve dedicating quite some time and energy just towards recognizing, analysing and countering the mistakes.

    Also what can we say about mistakes which are never realized. Some of them have a folllow-through effect leading to a chain of mistakes. You might have heard or seen cars crashed into one another in series.

  9. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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