December 12, 2011

The Tuition Value of Mistakes

What is a mistake?

Is it a blunder?



A momentary lapse in judgement?

It’s perhaps all of those; but one avenue often overlooked is that a mistake has value.

A mistake, however you define it, has tuition value.

And to be blunt, organizations that sweep mistakes under the proverbial rug, without using them as an opportunity for learning, undermine in entirety their tuition value.

However a mistake occurs, whomever is to blame and whatever negative consequence it resulted in is immaterial.

What is key for any organization is what we learned from the mistake such that the individual, the team and the organization benefit thereafter.

One doesn’t (necessarily) teach mistakes but once they occur, the tuition value can kick in if steps are taken to insert the opportunity into the learning cycle.

Whether a “sin of commission or sin of omission” (Nicklin and Williams, The Journal of Psychology, 2009, 143(5), 533–558), mistakes need to become part of a transparent learning cycle in any organization. One of the four key traits of a team is being an educator and as such, the team (or organization) must recognize the sin as an active ingredient to both the success of the team (organization) as well as the Collaboration Cycle itself.

There is value in a mistake.

There is, perhaps, a hidden tuition value in the mistake.

We don’t think to spend money on courses, facilitators and ‘experts’ focusing specifically on our mistakes … but there they lie, on a daily basis throughout a team and an organization, somewhat inchoate, yet we let them decay for fear of reprisal or our manager becoming apoplectic.

What can we do to gain value from this dormant tuition?

  1. Mistakes happen. Embrace them.
  2. Devise and embed ‘evaluation’ processes into individual and team projects.
  3. Develop open collaborative communities (online and face-to-face) that provide a mechanism to share mistakes.
  4. Openly share the tuition value of mistakes; when we learn from a mistake and course-correct to benefit a future action, how does that manifest in hour savings, cost savings or other factors and criteria? Publish it.

There is tuition value in a mistake.

Don’t make the mistake of mistaking mistakes as inconsequential.

Remember, you can’t spell mistake without ensuring you put a stake in it.


3 Replies to “The Tuition Value of Mistakes”

  1. I support the ‘lean’ approach to mistakes, i.e., drive to get rid of them, make them very visible when they do happen and painful enough that the organization must learn from the experience to get rid of them. This is the classic ‘Stop the Line’ approach implemented by many lean manufacturing companies.

    Too often I hear people in training and development use “Mistakes happen.” to rationalize not improving how they deliver training. It’s as if the mistakes people make are more instructive than the lessons they teach. Which begs the question “Why are you teaching at all?”

    Organizations must relentlessly strive for no mistakes by simplifying processes through techniques like poka yoke, and improving how people learn new information and skills. When mistakes happen (and they even happen at companies with insanely high levels of performance), they should be pounced on as a learning opportunity. It’s critical to ask the question ‘Did (or how did) our training effort fall short?” and improve that system. I can say unequivocally that more of the same training is NOT the right answer to the mistake.

  2. I would argue there’s no way to ever eliminate mistakes, as mistakes come with the evolutionary territory. The fundamental issue at hand is how those mistakes are handled.

    It all begins with trust. When everyone trusts each other to look out for their shared best interests, people are apt to take risks and make mistakes. It is the lessons learned from these mistakes which lead to the discovery of new ideas – legitimate innovation. That’s progress, right there.

    Where there are no mistakes, I say there is no progress.

  3. I once had a boss tell me a story that is particularly appropriate in this discussion.

    An employee was called into the president’s office after making a mistake that cost the company over a million dollars. he had already packed up his desk and was awaiting the final word that he had been fired for his error. After a few moments of conversation with the president, the employee looked over and said “So, am I fired?”

    The president’s response? “Fired? I just spent a million dollars training you!”

    Learning from mistakes is consistent with most effective training models. It is not to try and justify consistent failure to perform–repeated mistakes should be dealt with very differently than the one-offs.

    The company may have lost a million dollars through that employee’s mistake, but everyone learned the lesson, the president displayed a high level of trust in that employee and the company would be better off through this when compared with the alternative of firing the employee upon discovery of the error.

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