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The Miracle of Making Mistakes

Make no mistake: The fear of making mistakes is deeply ingrained in our psyche.

All through school, a mistake indicates the prospect of lower grades. Good students don't make mistakes. At home, mistakes lead to admonishments. Good children follow the rules. At work, mistakes have serious repercussions. Good workers get it right the first time.

But, in those very schools and organizations where we are marked down for making mistakes, we also learn that people often stumble upon great inventions. There's growing evidence to suggest that innovation flourishes when people are given the space to make mistakes. Even Mahatma Gandhi attached value to experimentation; he believed that "freedom isn't worth having if it doesn't include the freedom to make mistakes."

Why then don't we allow, much less encourage, making mistakes? Most of us, particularly in business, fight shy of them. We believe that people will see a faux pas as incompetence. We also feel that success is driven by our image as experts rather than as learners. And the measures of our performance are numbers such as sales, profits, total returns to shareholders, and so on.

Are these really the best measures of success? Consider an alternative. What if we were to ask employees what mistakes they committed because they did something differently? What did they learn?

Does that sound a little crazy? It may, but we have to bring the human element back in business; we can't function as extensions of computer programs. Some mission-critical and life-threatening tasks may have zero tolerance for failure, but not the rest of our work and lives. I'm not suggesting breaking every rule; I feel we should institutionalize the art of making mistakes; introduce a method for the madness; and innovate the innovation process.

Imagine encouraging an employee to keep trying to solve a problem until he or she makes, say, five mistakes. Imagine asking team members whether they have made their five mistakes yet! Trust me, if you aren't making mistakes, you're not learning — or, at least, you're not learning enough.

Do you remember the first time you rode a bicycle? Can you relive the exhilaration of riding free, the sense of triumph as you broke free of the crutches of support? Now step back. How many times did you fall off the bike before that first ride?

I remember my first class in engineering school during which our professor asked us to dismantle an engine. We did that. Then he asked us to put it together and walked away. We messed that up big time and had to work at it for days. I learned more about engineering in that short time than I did in the next four years. Why don't you ask your employees to dismantle something and then, give them the time but not the help to put it together?

Do you have the nerve to encourage the mistakes that people will inevitably make on the path of discovery?

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