Updated 06 May 2014

Making mistakes work for you

You’ve over-extended yourself, you’re over budget, or you’ve underestimated the demand for your services or product. Is all lost?


You’ve over-extended yourself, you’re over budget, or you’ve underestimated the demand for your services or product. All these over- and under- words mean one thing: you’ve let some people down. Now the swords are drawn and the Vikings are coming to burn your village. Is all lost?

If you’re taking risks, expanding your operations – whether it’s stockbroking, eco-tours, catering or discovering Greenland, chances are you’ll slip up somewhere, sometime. When it happens, there are a few simple lessons that can be applied:

Don’t pass the buck. When things go wrong, there’s often one thing that gets people madder than a glitch, bottleneck, hiccup or plain stuff-up, and that’s passing of blame. So if you’re culpable, say so, rather than promising to have your PA publicly flogged.

Act quickly. Arriving with fresh coffee and muffins may help, or may not. What’s more important than bowing, scraping and genuflecting is a clear indication that the mistake has brought you closer to not repeating.

Find a positive aspect, within reason. You can point out that, “In a way it’s good we lost the data this week and not in two weeks time, when the annual report’s due to be published.” But be careful: most people know attempts at face-saving when they see them. You might be better saying, “Look, I underestimated how much time this phase of the project would take. I want to take this one on the chin.”

Get help. Say, “I don’t want this situation to get any worse than it is and I really want to give this presentation my best shot – until it’s complete, can I leave planning the company’s annual holiday raid of Scotland to Edgar The Obsequious?

Analyse what happened. Say, “I’m the project head, so it’s my fault that this phase isn’t finished yet. But we would have had an extra fortnight in which to complete it if the final brief hadn’t stayed in Oswald The Obfuscator’s inbox while he was on holiday in Mauritius. In future, perhaps we can avoid that.”

Make sure you listen. In her book Successful Negotiating, Julia Tipler refers to “skim-listening,” where people listen until they pick up on a “trigger phrase” they want to reply to. They then stop listening, essentially waiting for an opportunity to reply. Listen. Take notes.

Marshall your forces.Give your team feedback. Say, “I had to sacrifice a maiden and conceded Cornwall and Wales, but we’re back on track. Let’s get back to work.”

Look at the big picture. Steve Jobs, the father of Apple computers, lost $250 dollars on NextStep, but is now at the helm of Pixar, which is knocking the socks off Disney, with hits like Finding Nemo, Shrek and Monsters Inc. There’s hope, but you only benefit from mistakes if you learn from them.

(William Smook)


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