My youngest has recently started at university, like all parents I have been consumed by worry. Will he cope, make friends, wash? After his first night there I rang him to be confronted by a tired but happy young man who had a very late night with his new chums and was having a fantastic time. He will no doubt make mistakes and I know from the experience of bringing up children that although it is really hard to let your offspring fail without rushing in to fix them and solve the problem, it is the best way that they will learn. No child would ever learn to walk if their over protective parents refused to allow them to stumble occasionally.
This led me to think about our approach to learning in the workplace and how we can help employees develop through making mistakes. Many organisations have a zero tolerance approach to something going wrong and every situation is met by an immediate witch hunt, a search for those who are at fault and a full scale investigation. This however often creates many more problems than it solves. I am not talking about the mistakes that come from indolence, incompetence or people who could really not be bothered. I am referring to genuine mistakes or situations that occur during the normal course of work or where someone is trying really hard to do the right thing.
In one sector I worked closely with there was no room for mistakes or less than total adherence to policies even if the policy was clearly rather stupid. As a law enforcement entity there was often great confusion between what was potentially a criminal act and what was basic mistake making. Let
me give you an example. Recruitment was underway for a mid-range managerial post. Only one candidate applied, an interview was held and an appointment made as the candidate was seen to be appropriately skilled for the post. A disgruntled member of staff who by the way had not applied for the job but resented the successful candidate put in a complaint saying that process had
not been followed as HR policy said there should always be more than one candidate for any role.
A full investigation led by a senior manager commenced to investigate what wrongdoing had occurred. To cut a long story short as you can guess there was no wrong doing. A suitable candidate had been appointed fairly even though the poorly worded HR policy had confused things, the key was that the
post had been widely advertised and was open to all to apply for, the candidate was suitable and was appointed fairly. The real outcome was that the successful candidate was upset by the suggestion that their appointment was wrong in some way. The appointing manager felt completely undermined, the HR department was once again seen as getting in the way of managers and
the investigating manager spent a lot of time coming to a conclusion that was obvious from the start. An expensive way of destroying morale.
I remember once making a major mistake in a project, I walked with huge trepidation to the Chief Executive office where I told him what I had done and awaited my fate. His response was to ask me what I thought I could do to rectify the problem and why I thought it had happened. I explained both and he asked me to go ahead with putting it right. There was no blame, there was
acceptance that I was capable of fixing the problem and trust that I would do this. I was so grateful that he trusted me and I learnt a huge amount from the experience firstly that I could always talk to my CE if I was worried about a problem, secondly I could find solutions and get things back on track, also I made sure I never made a similar mistake again.
Failure opens new doors, it creates resilience in staff and people learn more, it helps develop opportunities for innovation and creativity. When we create environments where mistakes cannot be talked about for fear of witch hunts and blame we drive them underground. They will still happen as long as we have humans in the workplace and as long as we want to push the boundaries of learning. Peter Drucker the eminent writer and commentator once said that organisations should fire the people who never made a mistake as they were clearly not learning anything. I agree, when we treat mistakes as a learning opportunity and create an ethos where honest and open feedback and comment is encouraged we create even more opportunities for greater success. If those who made mistakes and failed gave up at the first hurdle we would be without many of the wonderful products and inventions we enjoy today. So get out there and let's make a few more mistakes this week and see what we can create.