Dec 8 2011

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

Forget about forgiveness.  Admitting mistakes is much harder.  The second-to-last value that I’m writing up of our 13 core values at Return Path is

We don’t want you to be embarrassed if you make a mistake; communicate about it and learn from it

People don’t like to feel vulnerable.  And there’s no more vulnerable feeling in business than publicly acknowledging that you goofed, whether to your peers, your boss, or your team (hard to say which is worse — eating crow never tastes good no matter who is serving it). But wow is it a valuable trait for an organization to have. Here are the benefits that come from being good at admitting mistakes:

  • You’re not afraid to MAKE mistakes in the first place.  Taking risks, which is one of the things that vaults businesses forward with great speed, inherently involves making mistakes. If you’re afraid to shoot…you can’t score
  • You teach yourself not to make the same mistake twice.  Being public about mistakes you make really reinforces your leanings.  It’s sort of like taking notes in class.  If you write it down, you’re more likely to remember it, even if you’re a good listener to the teacher
  • You teach others not to make the same mistake you made.  Not everyone learns from the mistakes of others as opposed to the mistakes of self, but being public about mistakes and learnings at least gives other people a shot at learning

We’ve gotten good over the years at doing post-mortems (which I wrote about here) when a major snafu happens, which is institutional (large scale) admission and learning. But smaller scale post-mortems within a team and with less formal process around them are just as important if not more so, to make them commonplace.

We have also baked this thinking into our entire product development process.  We are as lean and agile as possible given that we are closing in on 300 employees now in 11 offices in 8 countries.  Our entire product development process is now geared around the concept of “fail fast” and killing projects or sending them back to the drawing board when they’re not meeting marketplace demand.  Embracing this posture has been one of the hallmarks of our success as we’ve scaled the business these past few years.

One trick here:  If this is something you are trying to institutionalize in your company — make sure you celebrate the admission of a mistake and the learnings from it, rather than the mistake itself. You do still value successful execution more than most things!