Why Making Mistakes And Learning From Them Is Better Than Perfection

“Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time,” says economist Tim Hartford, who wrote Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Yet too often, we reward outstanding performers by focusing on the things that they did right, ignoring the failures they experienced along the way.

The result? Many people, especially young and bright-eyed executives, get too caught up with the ‘right’ formulas for success and are so afraid to fail – to their own peril.

Ron Friedman, in his book The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, outlines numerous studies which prove that avoiding failure doesn’t just make for a more stressful work environment – it reduces performance as well. Over the long run, that mental strain takes a toll, resulting in less innovation and the experience of burnout, even in non-creative roles.

Allowing mistakes to happen is a vital part of innovation and creativity as it breeds trust. Here are some ways your company can benefit when failure is encouraged:

  • When mistakes are admitted, everyone learns. In companies that penalise mistakes, people tend to hide or cover them up. As a result, no one learns from it. However, when mistakes are admitted, everyone benefits from the learnings and findings. One person’s honest mistake may save three others from making the same mistake in ignorance.
  • The faster people fail, the faster they can be reassigned. Even your best talent will occasionally make mistakes. Don’t let them spend any more of their time on something that just isn’t working. Allowing people to admit, “This isn’t turning out like we planned,” means you can reassign them to a task or project where they’ll be more effective.
  • A culture where speed trumps perfection is a serious competitive advantage. The Facebook mentality is that “If you aren’t breaking things, you aren’t moving fast enough”, a sentiment shared by other big tech players such as Google. In tech circles, it became clear that those who could go to market the quickest with a minimum viable product (MVP) and tweak and iterate along the way would keep start-up costs low and grow faster than competitors.

How are some companies taking novel approaches towards encouraging their employees to fail?

  • Headquartered in New York, Grey Advertising famously gives out Heroic Failure quarterly prizes to encourage employees to “attempt something astonishing and go down in flames” instead of “gingerly holding back”. Read more about the Award and Grey’s quirky company culture.
  • Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. gives out stock options to scientists who admit that their projects are failing. The reasoning is that they will profit more by reassigning their highly skilled talent to projects that are more likely to succeed.
  • At SurePayroll, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business, rather than honouring the top achievers, the company celebrates the top screw-ups of the year. For this self-nominated award, the management reports receiving around 40 proud admissions of failure every year – and no wonder, because there are three winners for the “Best New Mistake” Awards, in Gold, Silver, and Bronze categories, which come attached with a cash prize that is much higher than any of the other traditional annual awards. Read about SurePayroll’s Awards and how you can put meaning back into company awards.
  • The $5.8 billion dollar company, HCL Technologies, encourages a culture of leadership by example. One of the entry requirements to its coveted Internal Leadership Programme is for potential applicants to submit a “Failure CV”, a recorded log of their past failures and what they’ve learnt from it.

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