The need for brilliant mistakes

You don’t want to stay a fish

Failure is an issue. The policy report on entrepreneurship 2014 by the Irish government shows we have an issue with failure and risk. Talking to our clients in the innovation space, the same issue arises. In innovation and particularly iterative innovation, failure is a given and in theory, it should be accepted by the organisation. In reality, it is not. Failure is not an option. But it should. In fact, failure is pre-requisite for survival. Our very existence as humans relies on the error mechanism of random mutation, if not we would still be fish, lizards or monkeys.

Ecosystem of mistakes

Unfortunately, our schools and organisations are designed for efficiency and order. These are fine principles but rarely encourage mistakes, either brilliant or foolish. It needs to get messy. Or to quote from “The Science of Serendipity“, you need to put the baby in the boxing ring. Diverse thinking and tolerance for mistakes are both critical to innovation since they allow for variation beyond what is normally seen. At times, you need to design ecosystems of mistakes.

Mistakes are relative

But what is a mistake? Perception is everything. Starting with the definition of a mistake Merriam-Webster defines a mistake as “a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention.” This crisp definition relies on a simple outcomes-based criterion of truth.

 If you take process-based criteria of mistakes you have to consider a few things.

  • Temporality. We may not be able to see all the consequences of a decision at the time we judge.
  • Chance. Random events may have significantly influenced the outcome of the decision we are evaluating
  • Treatment effects. These are actions taken after the decision, by either the decision maker or others, that may further change its course.
  • Missing data. How would alternatives that were omitted when the decision was made have played out?

Not to mention that science is moving feat (the world was flat for a while) and that business practices are not necessarily as successful as they appear to be (read ‘Business exposed” by Freek Vermeulen).

The key lesson; time can turn a mistake into a huge success and vice versa.

You can’t handle the truth

Not surprisingly, when we are wrong, various defence mechanisms, from cognitive dissonance and rationalisation to denial, spring into action to protect our egos and reputation.

And then there are the biases, the hindsight bias, survival bias(history tends to be written by the winners), control bias (we overestimate our own skill). When you go through to the list of biases humans have, humans and/or businesses don’t stand a chance.

For example, many firms use past performance, or that of close competitors, as the reference point for judging success. Also, managers often compare new ideas against the status quo. That is all looking in the rearview mirror.  Managers seldom look for evidence that will disprove received wisdom. Organisational norms tend to reinforce this confirmation bias.

 Hippo syndrome

In many organisations, decision making degenerates into a guessing game as to what senior management wants to hear. People abandon their better judgment in favour of what is politically correct, safe, or expedient.

No regrets

However, we do know that at the end of their lives, people often regret the things they did not do as much as the things they did. You don’t want that to happen to you and/or your business. So we need to flip it and force mistakes.

 Mistake budget

How many mistakes should we make in a given year, and of which kind? What is and should be our personal or organisational tolerance for mistakes? Are we really ready and willing to make deliberate mistakes to learn faster? How should we follow the advice of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr., who famously said, “If you want to succeed faster, make more mistakes”?

Is it semantics?

I have an issue with the way the books moves from mistakes to what is in effect innovation and experimentation, allowing for failure. Are these question about innovation or what the author calls creating deliberate mistakes:

  • Do you think that many of your crucial beliefs about your business may, in fact, be wrong?
  • Did you ever do something against your better judgment just to see what would happen?
  • Have you ever given an award to someone who tried something new that did not work?
  • When confronted with puzzling data, do you naturally insist on multiple explanations?
  • Are you viewed as an innovator in your field—as someone who challenges received wisdom?
  • Have you systematically tried to identify your implicit business assumptions?
  • Are you tolerant of mavericks—that is, credible people who hold unusual or contrarian views?
  • Do you value a learning culture in addition to a performance culture? Has your industry seen disruptive changes, with new business models arising?
  • Has past success made you complacent or perhaps even arrogant; is there hubris?       

It is about business survival

There is no question; to survive we need to expose ourselves to enough experiments, including deliberate mistakes, to accelerate our learning curve. As the mistakes happen, one key element has been identified as critical to the non-linear creative process: keen observation. Mastery is second (and probably follows from keen observation). The prepared mind ready for great discovery. Or as the philosopher, Immanuel Kant emphasised that there can be no perception without preception. Or Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow applied to your mistakes. Knowing that believing is easier than seeing.

Powerful message

It is a strange book. The message is powerful, mistakes are the fuel for survival, and you need to develop a culture that accepts mistakes. It talks about mastery, innovation techniques and observation. In some ways, it is close to “The obstacle is the way”  or “Antifragile

Need for current case studies

What I think it lacks are current case studies. Penicillin, chaos theory and Einstein are relevant, but old news. What mistakes are we currently making? We should find out and celebrate. And hopefully, change our attitude to failure. Making your business more antifragile and increase the change of survival.

Institute of brilliant failures

To that effect, we would love to launch the Irish Institute of brilliant failure, where we will have some of the failure institutes from across the globe visiting Dublin. We will invite Paul Schoemaker to speak. And we will follow it up with Failure Fridays every month.

Is anyone interested?

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
× How can I help you?