What Kind of Mistake is That?

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

In one organization I worked with, I was facilitating a meeting where the team was reviewing their weekly dashboard report that consisted of mostly green dots indicating that all was moving along well. The head of the group stated that everyone was verbally reporting to her that they were having trouble keeping up with the work demands yet there were no yellow or red dots on the report. Most everyone was silent until we probed the team a bit and finally one manager stated that he was afraid to put a yellow or red dot up, lest he get in trouble. His courage allowed for an open discussion of how this business group approached mistakes and even failures.

Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson defines mistakes and failures as falling into 3 broad areas.

  • The first are “blameworthy mistakes.” These entail a failure on the part of the individual or team to pay attention to or to follow a prescribed and defined process. It is also possible that the person performing the task may simply not know how to do the job. Apparently, Boeing’s failure to properly train pilots on to address problems on their 737 Max looks like it could be considered blameworthy.
  • The second group are “understandable errors.” These kinds of mistakes are related to task complexity or to a process that is not prepared to handle novel situations. Most work errors fall into this category and in the situation above, much of the challenges the team was facing were in this area. The complexity of health care treatment is so challenging that an industry of people who can explain and advocate for patients has grown.
  • The third are “praiseworthy failures.” These are events where we are trying something new or exploring hypotheses. We expect failure here and want to find ways the idea will not work so we can get closer to success. Many high-tech initiatives such as autonomous vehicles or robotics experience praiseworthy failures from which much is learned. Consider how fast the autonomous vehicle industry has grown, in large measure because learnings come fast when you are out of on the edge, trying something new.

Of course, it is not enough to just identify the kind of error that occurred but to conduct a careful and thorough analysis. The challenge often is that because mistakes affect us so personally, people do not want to dig into the failure any more than they have to engage with it. They want to move on as soon as possible. However, having a disciplined approach to why the failure occurred and even creating a culture of failure-acceptance (and even celebrations as Eli Li, Intuit and Indian car maker Tata) goes a long way to learning from those mistakes.

Your Challenge This Week: Talk about a failure that occurred for yourself or your team. Identify the kind of failure that it was and come up with an approach to analyze what went wrong and why. Make sure to minimize blame and encourage discussion. Share what you find, and I’ll anonymously report it in a future “Resilient Wednesday.”

© Richard Citrin, All rights reserved, 2019


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