When was the last time something went wrong in your company? If your answer is "Not at all," that doesn't necessarily speak to a productive error culture. Or you work in a highly regulated environment, but we'll get to that later. Where people work, mistakes usually happen: Errare humanum est, as Seneca probably sighed. In the following, we will take a look at three factors, how we often deal with mistakes and what effects this can have on our collaboration, but also on the innovative power of a company.
Anyone who spends time with young children can observe how they approach new things quite unselfconsciously and playfully try out how something works. Failures are not a catastrophe, but quite natural. Unfortunately, the lightheartedness is over as soon as the children start school: We teach them to watch out for mistakes, or rather, to avoid mistakes at all costs. Doing something wrong gets you a bad grade; being caught making a mistake feels like defeat. (The author of these lines has internalized the mindset of the time so much that she doesn't make typos. Look it up if you don't believe it!) Avoiding mistakes is, unfortunately, the opposite of a productive culture of mistakes - it makes you slow and anxious.
Since we have been experiencing being punished for mistakes since our school days, we try to avoid this experience. If it is only myself who has noticed this mistake, and I can assume that it is not a serious error... maybe it is better to just say nothing? Maybe the error won't be noticed further, and we'll make faster progress this way than if we go extensively troubleshooting? Unfortunate only if my own assessment of the error ("won't be so bad") falls short and the small error at the beginning has big consequences (for someone else) in the further course.
Another factor in dealing with mistakes is the question of responsibility. If mistakes are a bad thing, it is more comfortable not to be held accountable for them. In dictation, school children cannot deny that they themselves made the spelling mistake, but as soon as the culprit is not obvious, children and adults are quick to say, "It wasn't me!!!" I even know of incidents in companies where the trainee was falsely blamed for an error because the project manager didn't want to take the blame for the mistake in front of the customer. Here, the error culture consists not only of avoiding mistakes, but even in the denial of responsibility and scapegoat mentality.
But what about the aircraft industry? you may now ask. It's a valid objection: whenever human lives are potentially at stake, mistakes should not be accepted with a lenient shrug of the shoulders. In a so-called highly regulated environment (pharmaceuticals and medicine, nuclear power, aviation, and a few more), strict regulations and safety precautions rightly exist to ensure that errors and defects either do not happen or are noticed and corrected in time. In this case, a special error culture is required: especially factor No. 2 "maybe no one will notice" must be radically eliminated. The faster an error is addressed, the faster it can be corrected. This means that the error culture in a company must match the impact that an error can have. The next time you are annoyed because you find a typo after all during your presentation to the management, you'd better be glad that you didn't just yank your patient the wrong tooth out....
So what is a productive error culture? A well-known proverb gives us an important hint: one can learn wonderfully from mistakes, if not every mistake is immediately regarded as a catastrophe. This is also the reason why school children are asked to make elaborate corrections for their dictations; unfortunately, the shame of failure is usually too much in the foreground for a genuine error analysis to ensure learning success. Those who try to avoid errors according to Factor 1) play it safe in their way of working and thus deprive themselves of the opportunity to learn. Accordingly, in order to strive for a positive error culture, errors must be seen for what they are: human. This takes pressure off and opens up completely new options. For example, there are many examples in human history of how original mistakes have led to innovations. Among others, the microwave oven, invented/discovered by Percy Spence in 1945, is a purely accidental product. Thus, the chocolate bar Spence had in his pocket melted while he was trying to improve radar. In the same way, penicillin is a chance or error invention, just like penicillin or post-its.
So mistakes should be accepted. But what if the same mistake is made over and over again? Or mistakes accumulate? After all, persistent mishaps can also disrupt everyday operations. At this point, it should be mentioned that not every mistake contributes to innovation or is necessary. But for such an assessment, the circumstances from which an error arose must be closely examined. The key word here is communication. As in so many situations, having conversations can help enormously. This can help identify sources of error and ensure that lessons are learned from the mistake so that they don't happen again. In this exchange, the fear of faux pas can be taken away and a clear signal set. Further training for managers can also help them to better analyze mistakes.
Well, how do you ensure that such a positive culture is introduced? Of course, you could simply perform a risk analysis, set goals, start a new routine and have discussions about the development. However, a positive error culture cannot be implemented just like that. As mentioned above, we are talking about a societal problem here. The only thing you can do is strengthen communication with your employees. Among them is the introduction of a feedback or feedforward culture to eliminate avoidable mistakes in the future. Along with that, you can also emphasize that mistakes are okay, if not encouraged. Of course, this depends on how you want to shape your error culture; this is where an expert can help for a better assessment of the situation. Also, you should not punish slips, according to the fact that they were reported to you and not hidden. After a faux pas, you can also come together as a team and find common solutions. This can create a learning effect for the entire group. One of the most important things, however, is that all managers pull together to achieve this. Further training can be supportive in this respect so that an appropriate reaction to mistakes can be demonstrated.
Mistakes are commonplace and so it is quite easy to say that you want to build an error culture. However, it is not easy to implement. Gaffes are a source of learning, but the way an organization handles them can also determine its future success. This is precisely why dealing with them productively is so important. Supporting this are employee conversations, but also leadership trainings that ensure there is a common understanding of this evolution. This enables change to be implemented more efficiently. If you need support in this area, please contact us, we will be happy to help answer your questions.