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Top 5 reasons to celebrate mistakes at work

Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh recently tweeted this:

“$1.6 million mistake on sister site @6pm.com. I guess that means no ice cream for me tonight. Details: http://bit.ly/blfLnF

Apparently an employee had made a mistake while updating the prices on the web site, which meant that for a whole day, no item could cost more than $49.95. Some of their items cost a lot more. Ouch!

Now what do you do? In many organizations a mistake like this would be the starting point for a witch hunt. Who is responsible? How did they screw up? What would be an appropriate punishment?

But this is not how they do business at Zappos. At the link above, Tony Hsieh writes:

To those of you asking if anybody was fired, the answer is no, nobody was fired – this was a learning experience for all of us. Even though our terms and conditions state that we do not need to fulfill orders that are placed due to pricing mistakes, and even though this mistake cost us over $1.6 million, we felt that the right thing to do for our customers was to eat the loss and fulfill all the orders that had been placed before we discovered the problem.

PS: To put an end to any further speculation about my tweet, I will also confirm that I did not, in fact, eat any ice cream on Sunday night.

This is not soft or wishy-washy, it’is a great way to handle mistakes in a business. Rather than stigmatizing failure, we should acknowledge and even celebrate it.

Yes, that’s right, I said celebrate our mistakes. I’ve long argued that we should celebrate success at work, but we should also celebrate mistakes, failure and fiascoes. Here are the top 5 reasons why this is a good idea.

1: When you celebrate mistakes, you learn more from the mistakes you make

In one company, the CEO was told by a trembling employee, that the company website was down. This was a big deal – this company made most of its sales online, and downtime cost them thousands of dollars an hour.

The CEO asked what had happened, and was told that John in IT had bungled a system backup, and caused the problem. “Well, then,” says the CEO “Let’s go see John!”

When the CEO walked into the IT department everyone went quiet. They had a pretty good idea what wass coming, and were sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

The CEO walks up to John’s desk and asks “You John?”

“Yes” he says meekly.

“John, ” says the CEO, “I want to thank you for finding this weakness in our system. Thanks to your actions, we can now learn from this, and fix the system, so something like this can’t happen in the future. Good work!”

Then he left a visibly baffled John and an astounded IT department. That particular mistake never happened again.

When we can openly admit to screwing up without fear of reprisals, we’re more likely to fess up and learn from our mistakes.

2: You don’ have to waste time on CYA (Cover Your Ass)

Huge amounts of time and energy can be wasted in organizations on explaining why the mistakes that do happen are not my fault. This is pointless.

3: When mistakes are celebrated, you strengthen creativity and innovation

Randy Pausch, was a college professor who became famous after giving his “last lecture” when he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In his classes, Pausch would give out an award called The First Penguin to the team that took the greatest risk – and failed. The award is inspired by that one penguin out of a whole flock up on dry land who is the first to jump in the water, knowing full well that there may be predators just below the surface. That penguin runs a risk but if no one jumps in first, the whole flock will starve on land.

And check out this sign that hangs in the offices of Menlo Innovations, an IT company in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Make mistakes faster

Yep, it says “Make mistakes faster”. They know that mistakes are an integral part of doing anything cool and interesting and the sooner you can screw up, the sooner you can learn and move on.

4: Failure often opens new doors

Also, failure is often the path to new, exciting opportunities that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. Closing your eyes to failure means closing your eyes to these opportunities.

Just to give you one example: Robert Redford was once an oil worker – and not a very good one. He once fell asleep inside an oil tank he was supposed to clean. But failing at that, opened his way to movie stardom.

5: When you celebrate mistakes, you make fewer mistakes

I know that a lot of people stick to the old saw “Failure is not an option”. But guess, what no matter how many times you repeat this maxim, failure remains an option. Closing your eyes to this fact only makes you more likely to fail. Putting pressure on people to always succeed makes mistakes more likely because:

  • People who work under pressure are less effective
  • People resist reporting bad news
  • People close their eyes to signs of trouble

This is especially true when it’s backed up with punishment of those who make mistakes.

The upshot

Peter Drucker provocatively suggested that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them, because employees who never make mistakes never do anything interesting. Admitting that mistakes happen and celebrating them when they do, makes mistakes less likely.

James Dyson says this:

I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…

We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually.

So my challenge to you is to start celebrating your failures. Next time you or someone on your team messes up, admit it, celebrate it and learn from it. Tackle the situation with humor (as Tony Hsieh did) rather than with fear and shame.

Your take

How does your workplace handle mistakes? Is it more like a celebration or a witch hunt? What has been your most spectacular screw-up at work so far? How did you handle it and what did you learn from it? Please write a comment, I’d like to hear your take.

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72 thoughts on “Top 5 reasons to celebrate mistakes at work”

  1. The absolute worst of the worst in the witch-hunt-for-failure realm remains government. Any government. At any level. I’ve worked government from municipal to federal levels in Canada and I’ve worked private sector. I’ve never seen so much CYA paperwork in my life as I have in government offices.

  2. I think it’s great that the latest post on Bob Sutton’s blog, entitled “Fear-Based Performance Management at Fox News?”, is about a corporate culture that allegedly shuns mistakes and those who makes them. This post and that one serve as excellent examples of “how to, and how not to” handle failure.

  3. What do you feel about the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ? Should we celebrate that mistake/failure ?

    What about the financial crisis, a lot of which had to do with negligence and poor governance ? Should we celebrate that failure ?

    One can argue that even with the worst disasters, some good will eventually come out of them. Maybe but it does not mean we should have to go through those disasters to learn about what we did wrong.

    And that is where I think celebrating a failure needs to be done carefully and on a case-to-case basis.

    I totally agree with you that in a fear-driven environment, there will be no risk-taking, there will only be CYA. And that is certainly not healthy at all. So it is important to allow people to be bold, take on challenges – and make mistakes in the process if that is a fallout.

    However, as with everything, there needs to be a balance. And good judgement.

    Increasingly we see lack of accountability and responsibility across the board – whether it is in government or industry.

    I just hope celebrating a failure does not send across a signal for condoning reckless behaviour. The celebration needs to be nuanced with a message that mistakes are tolerated only as a fallout of a sincere effort, not due to incompetence or poor diligence.

    Just my two cents.

    This is the first time I am commenting on your site although I do visit it fairly regularly. I find many posts here very interesting – I think it is great that you challenge a lot of “traditional” practices, especially in large corporations.

  4. I remember reading an article at one point on Jeff Immelt (GE CEO) that while Leading GE Plastics, he pushed a counter top coating that ended up being too easy to scratch. They ended up replacing all the sold counter tops and eating the loss. The key take-away he said is making a mistake one time is a learning experience, but don’t make the same mistake twice.

    Reference: http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/06/six_tales/source/2.htm

  5. I’m definitely in agreement, especially on #2.

    For the team that I manage, I’m the one interacting with our clients the most, so I make a point of owning any mistakes we make (any successes, I try to attribute to whoever did the most work on that particular component). The basic thing is, I don’t want anyone on my team so afraid of making mistakes that they don’t branch out and come up with new ways of doing things. That’s more important than CYA on completely trivial stuff.

    And, you know, taking ownership of mistakes thus far hasn’t set me back at all.

    Regarding the oil-spill referenced in the last post… That’s -definitely- a catastrophe that shouldn’t be celebrated, certainly. But there’s something to be said about the culture at BP/Halliburton/Transocean where they’re all far more concerned about PR and shifting blame onto one another (i.e., tons of CYA that nobody’s buying) than about actually fixing the problem. If you take the focus off of placing blame, you can focus more on coming up with solutions that aren’t simply whitewash.

    Actually, to me, the correct response is for managers to take on the burden of blame. It’s too often that blame gets shifted to the lowest people on the ladder, and the ones who are supposedly in charge escape unscathed. KF

  6. Failure isn’t allowed in traditional science lab teaching. I remember (in the late 60′s) being told by tutors not to submit my own results but to make up ones that would fit the lecturer’s expectations. Hopefully science lab teaching now celebrates failure, but I doubt it…

  7. This is my favorite blog post of the many I’ve read recently! Thanks for offering a such a great read.

    I especially love Peter Drucker’s suggestion that companies fire employees who have never made a mistake. He advises this because these employees “never do anything interesting.” I’d add, as my former ski coach taught me, “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.”

    My clients are sometimes taken aback when I advise them to remove fear from the work environment. By creating a climate in which employees feel comfortable giving candid feedback to management and admitting to mistakes, managers help their businesses to innovate and thrive.

    If it’s of interest to readers, similar discussions/topics can be found at http://www.impactlearning.com/blog/

  8. Hey Alex,

    I had the same thought about how can we celebrate what is happening in the Gulf?

    Perhaps the point about this disaster is that the covering my ass method is in use…or the blame game. Certainly the media and public are blaming BP when their ideas to stop it fail. I would say I am part of that…then you see all the people on Youtube sending in ideas on how to help..that is great.

    In a way it is celebrating the opportunties that arise from a mistake…not so much the action of the mistake…and of course since they are linked you can say celebrate the mistake…but dealing with the challenging or destructive consiquences are also part of it…the taking responsibility like the man in the first company did when they had a loss and realized it was the system…not the employee John.

    xoxoxo

  9. Alex, an excellent article that i enjoyed reading. Why? I work in the project management arena as a consultant and trainer and see too many mistakes made with very little learning – despite much effort on my part. We all need to learn from mistakes (and from our successes as well)

  10. I am an average worker. My supervisor was the typical witch-hunter, even when no mistakes were being made. I saw people let go for very small reasons, and it felt like if anything were to happen we all knew it would be a chopping block. The pressure she threw around about making mistakes- and she knew we would, she said- was incredible.

    Finally I was so stressed constantly, I had a panic attack at work, then a few weeks later made a mistake that cost me my job, being a part time employee.
    My boss wrote the incident up as me ‘having problems’ using the panic attack as a weapon. I was so shocked and upset I left with out a word and refuse to even look for work in that line of business again. Most of my co-workers simply accepted this environment and learned how to be sneeky and manipulative, getting rewarded for it. I could not.

    That mistake, and the horrible management by this hospital spurred my re-entry to college to finish my business degree for Hospital Administration with the intent on learning how to be Successful with Integrity. Something you do not get to see often at the bottom.

    I think this article is a great one. I enjoy all the posts and learn a lot.

  11. What a great post… and fun too. You make light of the issue, which is part of the article’s appeal. But the salient point, is to “move on”. Yes, failure is part of life (and business too). There is a tomorrow, and learning from past failures is vastly different from dwelling on those failures. Same applies to relationships with customers: http://bit.ly/c8XNwx

  12. My old boss used to say, that he didn’t consider you a real programmer until you brought the system down at least once. I thought he was crazy until I brought it down one time. I learned to work under pressure and fast. Then.. I considered myself a real programmer. Mistakes do make us better. As long as we can work our way out of them.

  13. I am working on a very large library project which is being completed off-site over an estimated 4-5 years. Even then we do not expect to finish, just get the backlog down to a manageable size it can be moved back to “headquarters”.

    Every item has to be described and inventoried and put into our computer system and given a barcode. When the items are moved into a warehouse (in 4-5 years) that barocde number will be the only way to find the items (many of which are single sheets of paper, others are large book volumes).

    We know our barcode scanners are not the best, and I told people not to worry too much about whether the barcode numbers are right, because we know there is about a 3% error rate. These errors include random numbers popping up in the middle of barcode numbers and the system does not have check-digit verification.

    What I later discovered was the software that tracks where things are does not talk to the interface people use to search for things. So if the barcode is wrong, the second system does not catch this information. Nor does it have check-digit verification!

    At first I was mortified, but luckily management realized that this was going to be an ongoing issue and that it was impossible to “just be careful” and get the error rate below .1% (We are talking millions of items, so .1% is a lot of items essentially lost in a giant warehouse). As a result, an interface was built so a report is run on all items being prepared to go into the warehouse, and if an item barocde is unrecognized, it is flagged to be examined. My boss’es boss actually thanked me for “making this mistake” because they had not realized this flaw in the system and now we can locate, and fix errors easily.

  14. Several years back I had an employee come to me to tell me about a mistake they made that cost the company a lot of pain and money. The employee was expecting to be fired. When I asked what they were doing about the problem and if they were working on fixing the problem, the woman said yes. I then asked how I could help with the solution.
    “Boss, aren’t you going to fire me?” She asked.
    “Is this every going to happen again?”, I said.
    “Never:” she replied.
    I said if it happened again and you did not learn from your mistake, then lets talk about action. I believe mistakes help us learn. However, we do need to make sure we learn from them, and not just operate in a careless manner.

  15. Hank and Gwen earlier here reminded me of several other occasions where I’ve found mistakes -really- helpful.

    In our case, we’re developing some data processing systems and we very regularly make mistakes (because we’ve already scheduled in time to circle back and catch/correct mistakes–something we’ve learned from mistakes on past contracts). These regular mistakes have forced us to run and re-run the processes many times; as a result, we ended up discovering a lot of random system-wide factors that can cause errors in the process due to things beyond our control; this, in turn, let us know what things we can fix to work around those factors.

    It didn’t hit me how useful this was until we had a later conversation with our clients that went like
    Me: I’ll need to re-run this overnight; we’ll have it tomorrow.
    C: Did you account for [X1]? That could cause errors and delay it.
    Me: Oh no, the process does [Y1] to work around that.
    C: How about [X2]?
    Me: The process does [Y2].
    (and so on)

    I’m sure other people have far more interesting stories. But the bottom line is, if you’re the type of person who believes that -fear- is the best motivator to eliminate mistakes, you lose far more than you gain. KF

  16. Great post. There’s no doubt that the positive aspect of failure is the room it allows for intelligent risk-taking. I think the problem with the oil spill is that some of those risks went far beyond what was reasonable. Unfortunately, our culture — driven by the 24/7 media — is so blame-oriented that business and government leaders have to spend much of their time and energy on justifying their actions or even, as one poster noted, creating a paper trail from Day 1 to be sure they are covered.

  17. I don’t think I can buy into the idea of celebrating a mistake. Absolutely learn from it, and I don’t like the punishment approach of responding to mistakes by employees, but celebrating? Does the word really mean anything at that point? What do we do with success? I get that it sometimes takes unusual rhetoric to break through assumptions, but the idea of celebrating failure tempts us to think that failure doesn’t matter at all.

  18. I have not found that celebrating mistakes makes them happen less often. I don’t witch hunt per se, but I like to know who made the mistake that I have to spend hours fixing. When the same person makes the same mistake repeatedly, it is carelessness. I have found it effective to eliminate the middle man who is explaining to me what I have to fix. I don’t blame or yell, but when the person who makes the same mistake over and over has to deal with me directly, they find out exactly how long it takes to fix carelessness and they pay more attention to what they are doing.

  19. This post points out all the GOOD mistakes can make. Even as small children in elementary school, you’re old what to do, how to do it, and you get criticized by your teachers ad teased by your peers for doing anything wrong. It stifles creativity, and the person who madethe mistake. Yes, I agree that sometimes a person who constantly makes mistakes is careless; but sometimes, things just happen. There would never be any risks taken if someone thought improvements could notbe made, or if no one ever wanted to test boundaries.

  20. One great thing about being open about your mistakes is that you can ask for help. Very often you might be limited in your possible solutions, you might not even have defined the problem correctly and there might be someone in your team, who would have a great suggestion of how to solve it… if only you were brave enough to say: “I have a problem and I don’t know what to do.” or “I made a mistake and I’m looking for the best way of fixing it.”
    I once heard someone say that the perfect geometrical shape is a globe. But it is also the shape that has least surface and no possible entry points. This is what the image of perfection does, it makes you seem like you need no one and pushes those you could connect with away. If the orb gets some cracks and you show that you are not perfect, that you might need help, it invites people to connect and together you can reach much greater heights.

  21. At new shoes today we developed a new word to fill up the gap between ‘failure’ and ‘succes’, it is called; nearling.

    A nearling is a positive word for something new that you did with the right intentions, which has not (yet) led to the expected result.

    The reasons for nearlings not to succeed can be diverse, the circumstances have changed; a better option has been chosen; you made an error; faith decided differently; there suddenly were other priorities, etc.

    Until this moment there was no right English word for this phenomenum. There is the word ‘failure’, yet that sounded negative, an ‘experiment’ you decide to from the start. You only recognize a nearling when you look back, so you cannot go for a nearling, You can always learn from a nearling, and others can learn from it aswell when you celebrate them (I had some girl-friends before I merried my wife, I won’t call them failures or mistakes, I prefer nearlings). The nearling fills a gap in the international innovation language.

  22. All experiences, whether they are right or wrong, success or failure, mistakes or perfection are simply experiences. The day we stop learning from any experiences is the day we should be throwing the towel in.

    Thanks for such a well written blog, love it.

  23. As a very young individual entering the business world with the needed education but not having much working experience, I have come to quickly realize that mistakes have been my #1 learning tool. Being in a workin environment with superiors that highlight your weaknesses but then tells you what qualities you possess that will allow to prevent your mistakes from reoccuring has been beneficial to me not just at work but I also have learned to aplly this to life in general. When I make a mistake my boss often tells me what the consequences of my actions are or would have been if the mistake would not hav been caught. She then explains that if I would have used my research experience and relied on my other qualification, my work could have been outstanding. This makes me realize that she believes in my competency and gives me the motivation to impress her on the next project.

  24. We introduced the word ‘nearling’ for every result less than success. You cannot go for a nearling, you can only recognize them afterwards, so it’s not like an experiment or trial in which you calculate a risk.

    Our Minister of Economic Affairs did put it this way; in my life I had a lot of nearlings before I merried my wife. And I don’t want to call them mistakes, failures or experiments. They learned me a lot and I still carry them in my heart.

    A nearling is a positive word for something new that you did with the right intentions, which has not (yet) led to the expected result.

    http://www.nearling.com

  25. Hello :) Hope you can help.
    I have a disciplinary hearing at work on thursday because of a mistake i made at work.
    I work in a call centre, and misquoted a customer a price over the phone for some maintenace work on their vehicle by accident.
    As soon as i finished the phone conversation i informed my superior, who didn’t advise me to correct the price with the customer.
    Before i knew it; i was being taken into a documented chat, which has followed by a letter today saying i have a hearing about it on thursday.
    Is there any legislation saying that my leader assumed responsibility when i told her about the mistake? and by not telling me to correct the price?
    Would help me out alot if there is anything i can take into my meeting..

    Thanks for the help :)

  26. Thank you for posting this article. I just made a semi-large mistake at work and am having a bit of a freak out about it. I am currently waiting my boss’s reply via e-mail. Maybe I should sent him the article really quick:) (joking)
    Reading this made me feel much better. I beat myself up so much over the tiniest mistakes.

  27. The uniqueness of your article is indeed something that is influential in nature if probed deeply, it eventually got connected to leadership, management “Celebrating the failures”, celebrate it and learn from it.
    Thanks once again!!

  28. I remember my first mistake barely 2 months after being converted from a contract staff to full time. I forgot to add critical documents to a tender package for vendors and the mailroom had sent them out. I didn’t know how to approach my boss and I was freaking out. He buzzed me on the intercomm and I just knew the cat was out of the bag. He asked me what happened as a vendor called to complain and I told him and added that I was already trying to fix the problem. He calmly acknowledged my feedback and requested that I handled it promptly so that all the vendors were on the same page – that’s where it ended. Phew!! The experience did two things for me – one, I was much more careful (there were no more omissions) and two, I respected my boss’ mild manner so much so that I put in extra effort to exceed his expectations. There have been mistakes after that but one thing I have learned to do, ‘Smile and fix them’. Cheers.

  29. Excellent article Alex. I think you got a lot of people talking because this is a topic-and situation, we can all relate to. Very insightful, informative and inspiring : )

  30. Thanks for this. I made a big mistake at work this week and freaked out. Have a review with the boss today and am mortally dreading it. This helps.

  31. Hi My boss states that stress and pressure is good at work. Will undue stress and pressure cause errors in our day to day duties?
    Thanks

  32. What an inspiring article. On the face of it, sounds ridiculous – but when you absorb the logic of it, the whole thing makes heaps of sense. I have seen comments about huge mistakes such as the Gulf oil spill etc… but have to say that there is a world of difference between honest mistakes that we can learn from; and criminal negligence. I am confident that both situations are not the same, and can easily be categorised.

  33. This article is just what I needed to read. I made a mistake at work yesterday, and the minute I realised my mistake, I almost froze in shock. But theres only one way of handling it, heads up and inform the boss right away…they accepted my mistake calmly, and did not even reprimand me. Luckily it is something that can be fixed. But still today I am beating myself up about it and are trying to reason how this could happen, I am usually so careful. But nevertheless, we are all just human and so are our superiors, so hopefully they can appreciate and accomodate human errors to happen from time to time. Thanks for the great and uplifting post!!

  34. I left out a line of code in a validation rule on our web based CRM, so for an entire afternoon and into the next morning, we got no leads from our website. Our daily average is about 55. I eventually found my mistake, got all the error messages via email so I was able to input all of them manually, which was daunting to say the least. Anyway, nothing was lost, but my boss was out at a seminar and will no doubt find out on Monday. I’ve been under unreasonable pressure lately, and her condescending attitude and killjoy personality doesn’t help. I know she’ll handle this in the worst way despite I corrected the situation 100%. We shall see, but I really wish she was an optimist instead of a pessimist, I wouldn’t be such a wreck. Thanks for the article. It’s nice to know there are decent managers out there . . . Somewhere…

  35. I worked in an organization where the Boss did not tolerate even one typo in a document, and she used that to drum me out of my job. The pressure was enormous. This woman waqs unreasonable and I began searching for a new job immediately.

  36. Sorry to hear there are so many people working under the pressure to be perfect. I won’t go quite as far as Peter Drucker, but I certainly have no problem with mistake-makers on my team. We always learn from the missteps, and they rarely cost much in the long run. Of course, we aren’t doing brain surgery or handling nuclear waste. I admit there are contexts in which mistakes can be fatal, and those call for better procedures in the first place, more checks and balances, better guards against fatigue, and more oversight. One more thought–most people are amazingly forgiving and supportive when a mistake-maker steps up, apologizes, fixes, and makes amends. We’ve all been there!

  37. Pingback: Celebrate mistakes

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