Permission to Make Mistakes

It was a lightbulb moment. A few weeks back, a friend and I were talking about  the tendency of some companies to analyze and hold meetings, hold meetings and analyze, discuss, research and discuss again without taking any action. We were interested in the root cause of the perpetual analysis (a.k.a. analysis paralysis). Was it an extreme desire for precision and perfection? Or was it a fear of making mistakes?


At first thought, it would seem that either approach would be ok for a business, right? We talked about the differences between a company striving for perfection vs. a company striving to avoid mistakes. One is a team working towards a positive result. The other is a group striving to avoid a negative result. It turns out that there is a big difference…


The first company will have a tendency to pull together as a team of teams and achieve that “synergy” all us managers talk so much about. Efficiencies will be high. Problems will be seen as “challenges” and “opportunities”. Morale will be strong. Conversations will be motivating. People will be having fun at work as they innovate and achieve together. Setbacks will be discussed, learned from and forgotten. The overall energy will be positive and customers will notice.


The second group will be quite different. Each person will be working for themselves, focused on being blameless for any issues. The team will be inefficient and somewhat dysfuntional. Problems will be seen as “obstacles” and “showstoppers”. Morale will be poor and stress levels will be high. Conversations will be draining and everyone will be counting the minutes until quitting time. Innovation will be non-existent. Setbacks will become crises, dwelled upon and never entirely forgotten, but there will be no lessons learned. The overall energy of the company will be negative – even if the company itself is successful – and customers will notice.


How many companies out there have evolved into a ‘mistake avoidance’ culture? I bet the number would scare us. I would also bet that you could name two or three examples right off the top of your head. (It’s not hard to pick those companies out when you’re looking.) Is your company one of them? If so, what action can you take right now (and I mean right this minute…) to start to change?


Might I suggest that you give yourself and your employees permission to make mistakes?


p.s. Remember, my friend, as I’ve written before: there can be no success if there is no risk. Dare I say there can be no success if there are no mistakes? I dare. Please share your thoughts…

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26 thoughts on “Permission to Make Mistakes

  1. An excellent point – risk management is more than risk avoidance. You are quite right that one of the advantages of good risk management is the ability to take advantage of opportunities – and the ability to manage the consequences of mistakes.

    Many organizations spend a lot of time avoiding mistakes, because their culture makes mistakes unforgiveable. This approach has two drawbacks. Avoiding risks at any cost means rejecting the opportunities that the same risks present. Experimentation relies on trial and – error – and the mistakes themselves are also opportunities.

    These organizations are ignoring the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Good risk management allows you to take advantage of risks – and even take advantage of mistakes.

  2. “Avoiding risks means rejecting the opportunities” is a great point, Nicholas. I wish I could have phrased it so well (and covered that point better) in the post. Thanks for adding the valuable comment!

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  9. Great post (once again) Tom, you’re absolutely right about a culture of fear around mistakes being an innovation killer.

    I think the obstacles to overcome are attitude (mistakes are bad), and creating a safer environment to make mistakes in. IDEO, an industrial design company, is an example. They use Styrofoam extensively to make safe design mistakes before they even get close to actual manufacturing. The styrofoam mistakes lead to remarkable innovation.

    Decision models are where we encourage our clients to make mistakes, it’s safe, and you can be adventurous!

    Thanks for the great post.


  10. IDEO is a wonderful example, Matt. Design companies (at least the successful ones) are great places to look for inspiration on how to combat a mistake avoidance culture.

    You are right on the mark about attitude and environment. The interesting thing I’m finding is that both can be addressed on the ‘micro’ level of an organization – the individual. In the last few weeks I have told co-workers “It’s ok to make a mistake”. I’ve received awesome responses both times. Maybe the key to the org issue is to start one individual at a time starting at the top. Thoughts?

    I’m glad you took the time to leave the great comment, Matt. Excellent! Thanks.

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  12. Okay, I love, love, love, having found this blog. You are so right that risk management is NOT about risk elimination and avoidance: it’s about risk *management*. Of course people are going to make mistakes! We’re human. Mistakes are how we learn. It’s sensible to take precautions and think ahead to the potential consequences of our decisions. But when we get so afraid of the unknown potentials that we can’t actually make those decisions, we cease to have any value to our organization.

    Thanks for this. I’ve subscribed. 🙂

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  14. You’re making me blush, Geoff! 🙂 Thanks for joining us in the conversation.

    I read a stat once that 2% of everything we (humans) do is wrong. I tend to skew the curve to the right, but my point is I am right behind you in saying “Be grateful for mistakes for in mistakes lie wisdom.” (not bad, eh? You can quote me.)

    Thanks for the comment and the ego-boost! I’m looking forward to talking with you again. You made my night….

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  20. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve reached the same conclusion lately when thinking about the level of over processes that organizations enforce because of their fear that something might go wrong. The key to reducing the unncessary process burden is allowing people to make mistakes without the fear that severe punishments will follow. Let’s allow people to make mistakes with the expectation that overall processes will be vastly simplified.



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  22. Thanks for joining the conversation, Shim! I see the same “over process” reaction. We spend hours and hours writing process documents to cover every possible scenario (corner cases), no matter how unlikely. Why? To eliminate the possibility of individual mistakes. I work in the aerospace/defense world so rigorous process is warranted to a degree, but the approach “more is better” in process is extraordinarily expensive and demoralizing. I’m behind you 100%!

    Sorry for the bit of rant. Apparently you touched a nerve 🙂 Thanks again for commenting. I look forward to our future discussions!

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  24. Glad to see people agreeing. Congrats, Tom, good topic!

    Perhaps risk managers ought to talk about the risk of missing the opportunity to capitalize on mistakes.

    Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto writes about the lessons Boeing learned from their now famous B-17 crash in 1935, which led to the creation of the pre-flight checklist. Boeing did many different things right to get where they are today, but the checklist, a direct result of a catastrophic event, is one that helped get them there.

    Risk managers need to sell the message that mistakes are also opportunities.

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  26. Do you think the Boeing folks had any idea of the impact they were going to make with the introduction of the pre-flight checklist? I doubt it. Not only did they save countless lives, they initiated the creation of a whole industry (electronic flight bag). What an awesome example of how risk management is just as much about opportunities as it is about risks.

    Thanks again for the comment, Nicholas!

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