I don’t like making mistakes. In fact most of my professional life has been spent in the service of not making a mistake, or being seen not to.
I am not alone; in fact a lot of the practical difficulty in culture change projects is created by people being (understandably) unwilling to move away from a no mistakes / ‘safety first’ style of thinking.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with safety first, it is not always the most helpful approach to problem solving. Sometimes we need to think creatively, try something new…and risk making a mistake.
Yet so much of the language in organisations is about not making a mistake. Small mistakes are often cited in appraisals as evidence that someone did not have an outstanding year. And in comparison to creative thinking, ‘risk management’ sounds sensible, grown up and professional. It is easy to pick holes in new ideas.
So a ‘safety first’ culture often prevails where creativity is seen as a luxury and mistakes are punished. This is fine for some kind of problems, but not those which require more than past experience to solve them (what Ron Heifetz calls ‘adaptive change‘).
Therefore, when attempting to help organisations deal with adaptive change, we need to pay attention to how mistakes are treated. Clearly in this respect senior managers set the tone.
Yet so ingrained is our fear of making a mistake, the main barrier is how we ourselves feel when we make a mistake. If making a mistake is the admission price for creativity:
What does it feel like to make a mistake?
I have made a number of mistakes recently, so I thought this would be an interesting experiment. After all, if we are to encourage people to take risks and accept their feelings about making a mistake, what exactly are those feelings?
In this case the mistake I made was sending an e-mail which contained factual errors. Here’s what happened next:
- The first experience was a nasty, crackling sensation deep inside my stomach, which had a kind of shockwave effect, culminating most noticeably in a sort of pins and needles feeling in my hands, lasting about 5 seconds.
- The next moment brought a slight shortness of breath combined with a leaping heart and a racing mind to create a momentary sense of panic.
- The next feeling was a realisation that the mistake is real and this came (for me) with feelings of slight nausea lasting about a minute.
- Interestingly, my mind then immediately raced into self preservation (i.e. excuses) mode. Can I shift the blame? Can I make an excuse? I was almost overwhelmed by these thoughts over the next 30 minutes – being aware of them did not seem to matter.
- The most noticeable feature was then my mind’s ongoing attempts to try and fix the problem. Again these thoughts were almost overwhelming and impossible to stop. (Incidentally this is where I often compound the initial mistake, so overpowering is the desire to fix it immediately). This is also the period where my mind suggests a number of different lies which might get me off the hook.
- Finally I noticed how the mistake had a peculiar ability to haunt me. For example, I can think about it and right now – sitting here at my comfortable desk – I can experience a kind of ‘after shock’ all over again, with a heart leap thrown in. It is as if my mind is saying ‘you need to remember this because we are not going to do that again!’
If we are to encourage new ways of thinking it seems to me that we need to help people recognise and accept what it feels like to actually make a mistake. Though this won’t be easy, the alternative is a life lived in the service of not getting things wrong.