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.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


Learn to execute before you innovate

Mar 18, 2010 by

In the Jazz Process there are fourteen principles that form a continuum that progresses linearly from the most fundamental principles to the more advanced:


These fourteen principles are effectively divided into four groups:

  • Working: Five principles support individuals working within a team.
  • Collaborating: Four principles enable a team to work in synergy so that their combined efforts produce more value than the sum of their individual efforts.
  • Executing: Three principles ensure successful execution.
  • Innovating: Two principles facilitate creativity and its application to delivering solutions.

I am often asked why innovating is the final step and why it is only supported by two principles. Isn’t innovation the single most important goal and a critical measure of success? Innovation is certainly important. It enables a team to produce a unique offering that can differentiate them from their competitors. However innovation is not the only way to be successful. In many cases simply delivering a higher quality offering and/or delivering it faster than anyone else is enough to lead the field. If you can come up with something unique but can’t get it delivered quickly enough, you may have lost whatever opportunity you had to capture customers. More important, if the quality sucks it may cost you more than you can imagine. A few months ago if I had Googled “Toyota quality” the top hit would have been something like this Wikipedia entry which describes the importance of quality in Toyota’s manufacturing methods. Instead the top link is now “Toyota Chief admits quality lapses,” one of many news articles about Toyota’s recent woes. Quality stands out as the most significant management imperative of the 20th century, beginning in the 1920s when Walter Shewhart applied statistical theory to quality control. His principles lived on in the work of W. Edwards Deming, who along with quality gurus such as Joseph Juran and Kaoru Ishikawa, established a mid-20th century quality movement in Japan that birthed concepts such as Total Quality Management, Total Quality Control and Kaizen. Some argue that the quality movement has faded, but its demise is greatly overstated, and the quest for quality continues to live on in standards such as Six Sigma and ISO 9000. More significantly, quality management is no longer limited to manufacturing but has been adopted by domains such as government services, healthcare, education and environmental management.

The reality is that you can’t have innovation without successful execution and you can’t have that without successful collaboration and that in turn is dependent on basic working productivity. The mistake that almost every novice jazz musician makes is in trying to base their improvisations on fancy, innovative melodic, harmonic and/or rhythmic elements when they don’t even have the basics firmly within their grasp. The first thing one must do is work on playing in tune and in time with a strong groove. The budding jazz musician must develop technical proficiency but this is not necessarily so they can play fancy riffs but primarily to allow them to increase their situational and group awareness. One of the most important skills of highly effective people is their ability to allocate a sizable portion of their personal bandwidth to collaboration. Think about the work related tasks at which you are most proficient. Chances are you can do some of those things on autopilot, allowing you to simultaneously perform another task or even two. Or perhaps you can easily complete these tasks in less time than it would take someone without your level of proficiency. We each have limited cycles but the more proficient we are at the routine tasks the more aware we can be of our surroundings. Imagine a drummer who has to think constantly about where to place his or her limbs, how to hold the sticks, which drums to hit and how to co-ordinate both arms and legs. A person doing all that will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain awareness of what is going on with the other musicians, the audience and the combined sound. Now imagine a drummer for whom playing is a routine exercise. He or she can perform all the necessary fundamentals and still have sufficient personal bandwidth to monitor everything else that is happening, communicate with the other musicians, respond to changes and engage in interplay. If you’re not even aware of what’s going on around you, how can you collaborate effectivelyand ensure that what you do is aligned with and not in conflict with the efforts of your colleagues?

People talk about innovation all the time but many of them should be thinking about more fundamental things. The reality is that execution is extremely difficult and a lot of people, while they can talk and plan and theorize about doing fancy stuff, have a lot of trouble just getting a solid offering delivered at the right time. An often quoted adage is that you should “learn to crawl before you walk.” In the same way you should learn to execute before you innovate. However walking is probably only equivalent to simply executing. Dancing would be innovating. However that’s for another discussion.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


Making repeat collaboration work

Mar 7, 2010 by

Harvard Business Review editor, Andrew O’Connell, asks “Does Repeat Collaboration Really Kill Creativity?” The short answer is that it can. Yet as O’Connell points out, there are collaborations that can remain highly creative for a long time.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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