Turning Mistakes into Development Opportunities

You may have the story about failure during the tenure of Tom Watson, Sr. as CEO of IBM. As the story goes, a promising young executive at IBM was involved in a risky venture that lost $10 million for the company. When Tom Watson Sr., the founder and CEO of IBM, called the executive to his office, the executive tendered his resignation. Watson is reported to have said, “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million dollars educating you!” 

Making mistakes and learning from them is important, current GE CEO Jeff Immelt, often recants his famous $20 Million dollar mistake. “If you tried something and it fails but you went about it the right way and you learned from it, that’s not a bad thing,” Immelt stated in the July 2006 issue of Business Week magazine.

So are all mistakes development opportunities? Not necessarily, according to Kevin Eikenberry, leadership expert and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Kevin offers some useful ways to determine if a mistake could be used as a development opportunity:

Mistakes are OK if:They lead to learning.
They aren’t repeated.
They are done in pursuit of your goals and objectives.
They don’t violate or conflict with your values.
Let’s look at each of these a bit more closely.

Mistakes are OK if we learn from them. Remember that one of the best opportunities to learn is when we do something wrong – when we make a mistake. If you reduce the opportunities for mistakes you seriously limit your learning opportunities.

Mistakes are OK if they aren’t repeated. So you make a mistake once – learn from it. If it is a repeated mistake, it is less valuable as a learning experience (unless you’re trying to learn the mistake). In fact anything you did learn from the first mistake, likely will be lost with the repeat performance.

Mistakes are OK if they are done in pursuit of your goals and objectives. To achieve any worthy goal or objective different things must be tried. In order to improve anything you must try a new way. New approaches will sometimes cause mistakes. When the mistake is made trying to achieve the agreed upon goals, what could be wrong with it?

Mistakes are OK if they don’t conflict with your values. If your company values safety and the mistake puts you or those around you at a physical risk, then that mistake isn’t advisable. But if no laws are broken and no values are violated, a mistake shouldn’t carry major repercussions.

Applying These Criteria
Think about these criteria collectively not individually. In other words, a mistake could pass three of the criteria but not the fourth. In this case it isn’t OK. But if it meets all four criteria, my advice is to celebrate the person for taking a risk (or congratulate yourself) and keep moving forward.
With these criteria in place people will become more willing to try new things; to take a bit more risk; and to be less tentative. All of these things will lead to some mistakes – but they will also lead to great opportunities for growth and improvement.

So mistakes – the right kind of mistakes – can be powerful leadership development opportunities, as long as we take the opportunity to reflect (or help others reflect) on what we’ve learned and not repeat the same mistake again.