The importance of screwing up

Dec 15, 2010 by

I screw up all the time. Yes that’s right. Sometimes my mistakes go unnoticed and sometimes, hopefully not too often, they are big screw-ups that affect others.

As we are near the end of 2010, the mind invariably turns to a retrospective of the year. In any aspect of our life, whether it be work, recreation, family, friendships, volunteering, faith, or anything else, we can ask ourselves what went well and what didn’t go well? More specifically, what worked well in order to achieve success, and what led to failure or results that didn’t meet expectations?

I am very interested in the study of screwing up. In the Jazz Process book, I wrote about various aspects of making and recovering from mistakes but there are many books that provide more detailed coverage of the topic. I recently finished reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan. I was delighted to find that Hallinan begins by covering many of the same things I raised in my book such as the importance of awareness and the need to understand one’s own biases. Hallinan’s book is very well researched. He quotes many fascinating studies that provide ample evidence of the multitude of ways in which we can misstep and misjudge without intention. It’s well worth a read.

I’m now reading another book on the subject, Bozo Sapiens co-authored by Michael Kaplan and his mother, Ellen Kaplan. The Kaplans’s book is not as academic as Hallinan’s work and it focuses more on why making mistakes is a human trait. However it’s just as fascinating and informative as Hallinan’s book and you may find it an easier read.

Understanding why we make mistakes is important to avoid repeating them or even making them in the first place. However it’s also important to understand that to err is human and mistakes don’t always have to be fatal. On the other hand we shouldn’t discount the cost of mistakes in certain situations. Clearly, we want to avoid mistakes that lead to the loss of life. The tolerance for mistakes varies and this is where the notion of quality comes in. Is 99.9 percent good enough? If 100 musicians in a symphony orchestra each play 1000 notes in a performance then 99.9% means they still play 100 bad notes and even just one of those might just ruin an otherwise perfect performance or recording take. The United States Postal Service delivered 667 million pieces of mail each day in 2008. 99.9% means they would have lost 667,000 packages each day.

Yet in many fields, mistakes are more tolerable. It’s great to strive for perfection, but not at the cost of all else. Many software products are released with known defects. Some defects are tolerable because their impact is negligible or can be worked around while others are critically serious. Zero defects is a meaningful target, but it is far more important for a missile guidance system than for a word processor. Mistakes in sports are common, but defeating your opponent is usually more important than simply playing an error-free game. In many fields, including improvised jazz, it’s not so much making mistakes that is the issue but rather how you recover from them. If you listen to the classic Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue, you can hear many “mistakes.” However these are simply incorporated into the performance and the musicians used these unexpected events as jumping-off points to further evolve the music. Every piece but one on the Kind of Blue album was the first take. Even when they had the opportunity, the musicians (or at least Miles) didn’t feel the need to redo the takes despite the “mistakes.”

It’s easy to avoid making mistakes. Simply don’t do anything where you just might possibly screw up. The problem is that the cost of doing nothing or doing only safe things can be greater than the cost of not trying and potentially failing. Many organizations aspire to innovate yet their culture does not permit the possibility of failing. This has the effect of stifling innovation. Google’s culture of innovation accepts mistakes as a normal part of the research and development process. According to Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and CEO, “The way you say this is: ‘Please fail very quickly—so that you can try again.'” Larry Page, president and co-founder of Products, said to one employee upon hearing from her that she had cost the company several million dollars, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.” In the book Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos that she co-authored with Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Professor of Strategy and Organization at Stanford University, Google’s Senior Vice-President of Business Operations, Shona Brown, known as the company’s “Chief Chaos Officer,” wrote: “Mistakes occur because systems at the edge of chaos often slip off the edge. But there is also quick recovery and, like jazz musicians who play the wrong note, there is the chance to turn mistakes into advantages.”

I hope you’ll learn from the mistakes you made in 2010 but I also hope that you’ll leave room to make more (although perhaps different ones) in 2011 in the interest of achieving great things.

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