Do we want people to make mistakes? The answer I generally get to this question is “Yes”, because people recognise that this is how we learn and discover new ways of doing things.
If one of your people were to come to an appraisal and say “I’ve made no mistakes in the last year”, would you be impressed? I doubt it. It is more likely that you would wonder why they hadn’t tried more new stuff.
“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”, Albert Einstein
Paul Schoemaker writes of “brilliant mistakes“, estimating that half the discoveries in healthcare had an accidental origin. The most famous of these is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.
Many companies recognise the need not just to create a no-blame culture but to positively celebrate mistakes, to encourage more innovation.
1: Google: “reward failure”
In his new book Work Rules!, Google’s Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock states “it’s also important to reward failure” so as to encourage risk-taking.
Bock gives the example of Google Wave, an online platform launched in 2010 and closed a year later. “They took a massive, calculated risk. And failed. So we rewarded them.”
2: Celebrate with wine and cheese
Michael Davies, Head of Sales at MacQuarie Telecom, told me of when he’d recently hired a yacht. He was told “If you get stuck on a sandbank call us out, and we will arrive with a bottle of wine and a cheese platter to celebrate.”
Did he have to call them out? “Yes, twice”. Both times the wine and cheese were brought. The reason was simple: Getting stuck on a sandbank isn’t a problem if you know how to get off. If you don’t, then you could wreck the underside of the boat.
If something does go wrong, its great to make sure that whoever fixes it, is the best person to fix it.
3: Intuit: “We celebrate failure”
Accounting software company Intuit gives a special award for the Best Failure and holds “failure parties”. “At Intuit we celebrate failure”, explains co-founder Scott Cook, “because every failure teaches something important that can be the seed for the next great idea.”
4: Huntsman: hold a party to celebrate
Huntsman is a chemical company with a plant in North-East England. On the wall there used to be a big red button which, if pressed, discharged the chemicals into the local river.
One day the scaffolders were in, and one of them nudged the button with his pole. His scaffolding company sacked him. But, when Huntsman found out, they insisted he be reinstated, sent back to work for them and even held a party to celebrate.
Nobody say him press the button, but he had taken responsibility and gone to the control room and let them know. As a result it could be fixed in 30 minutes, rather than 24 hours, there was minimal environmental damage and no fine. “Holding that party sent a message round, and it spread like wildfire, that Huntsman is a no blame culture”.
If problems result from a mistake, it is rarely the mistake that causes it. More often, it is the cover up.
5: Gore celebrates failure with beer or champagne
WL Gore, the makers of Goretex, was once voted the most innovative company in the US. They have long celebrated when a project doesn’t work, with beer or champagne – “just as they would if it had been a success”.
Gore’s fundamental beliefs include: “action is prized; ideas are encouraged; and making mistakes is viewed as part of the creative process.”
6: Menlo Innovations: “Make mistakes faster”
Make mistakes faster is a core principle at Menlo, the software company that founder Richard Sheridan set up to create a joyful work environment.
As my colleague Alex Kjerulf puts it (in a great post on celebrating mistakes), “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.”
7: Tata: “Failure is a gold mine”
Rajan Tata, founder and chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata created a prize for the Best Failed Idea, as he neared retirement. The aim is to spark innovation and keep the company from avoiding risks.
8: Celebrate at the Church of Fail
At Brighton-based social media company NixonMcInnes the Church of Fail is a monthly ritual. Employees are invited to stand and confess thier mistakes, and are wildly applauded for doing so.
“Making failure socially acceptable makes us more open and creative,” says McInnes.
Do you have a no blame culture that enables risk-taking and innovation. How could you celebrate mistakes?
About the author:
In early 1987, Henry Stewart was finance officer for The News on Sunday, a left-wing tabloid newspaper that successfully raised £6.5m from trade unions and Labour local authority pension funds. Six weeks after launch, the publication was bankrupt.
“The problem was not the talent or dedication of the people,” Henry says. “It was the working environment. We weren’t trusted, there was a strong ‘blame’ culture and we weren’t given the freedom to do our jobs. As a result, is was nearly impossible to get anything done”.
Determined to learn from this, he set up Happy Computers in his back room a year later. From a combination of experience, revaluation counselling and a few helpful tips from Richard Semler’s ‘Maverick’ book, he drew together the key principles of training and work that continue to form the backbone of Happy today.
In 2009, Henry was listed as one of the top 50 most influential business thinkers in the world by the Guru Radar of thinkers.
You can follow Henry on Twitter @happyhenry.