The Mistakes We Make When We Make Mistakes

The more uncertainty and complexity there is, the higher the chances that mistakes will happen. As innovation leaders, we get that and are hopefully comfortable with it. However, when mistakes do occur, not dealing with them well can undermine our effectiveness as leaders. Here are two common mistakes we make when dealing with mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Develop a Permanent Fix

It’s a natural reaction to want to prevent mistakes from ever happening again.  We devise processes and procedures that are designed to eliminate the risks of the mistake from reoccurring.  When we do this however, it tends to create more rigidity in our thinking.  Whereas before we could feel free to energetically explore divergent thinking, now we have to stick to “safer” innovation.  But processes designed to prevent risk inadvertently prescribe mental buffers on our best thinking and diminish the quality of our ideas.  What’s more, in an environment with high levels of complexity and uncertainty, creating a permanent fix for mistakes that happened are almost guaranteed not to work because no two situations will be  the same.  

Mistake #2: Focus on the Past 

Spending too much time and resources spinning up discussions around what happened in the past, takes away energy that could be more valuable addressing what lies ahead. In his HBR article Leading in a VUCU Environment: U is for Uncertainty, Colonel Eric G. Kail says it like this, “Glance back, look ahead. It’s prudent to assess the outcomes of our plans and decision…however, every review must be conducted at the right level of detail, with the purpose of making the organization stronger as it moves forward. They should focus on what could realistically be done better in the future, rather than what could have been done in the past, had time permitted.” 

Inquisitions bent on ensuring that bad outcomes will never happen again exhaust valuable resources – and in an uncertain environment they’re ineffective anyway.  


IN THE END, to avoid the mistakes we make when we make mistakes, list the conditions that existed when the mistake happened.  Watch for these conditions as you move through future projects. When a similar condition presents itself, understand the actions that could have prevented the mistake in the past and determine whether the same action steps will work now.  Remain as flexible as possible and avoid one-size-fits-all preventative fixes.

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