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Make the most of your mistakes

(MoneyWatch) Are you learning enough from your mistakes?

Everyone makes mistakes. The most routine processes can go wrong. I was asked recently whether people were more careful when more was at stake. On reflection, I had to answer "no." Doctors operate on the wrong limbs not because they think their work is frivolous but because they're human.

So whether your work is trivial or important, you are going to make mistakes. That's how we learn. Watch toddlers: They don't learn by reading a manual, conceptualizing and then executing. They hang on to the furniture and fall over a lot. That's how they get better.

What's key in business, therefore, isn't to eliminate mistakes -- that's impossible. The goal has to be to learn from them.

But mostly that isn't what we do. Instead of owning our mistakes, we are more inclined to "deny and defend." Until recently, the poster child for that response was the medical community. And why not? Doctors had plenty of reason to believe that when their patients were the victims of errors, they were angry and litigious: Not the kind of people you'd want to confess to.

At the University of Michigan, when Richard Boothman and his colleagues suggested owning up to mistakes early, their economists told them they were mad. Lawsuits would proliferate, costs would soar. But when, rejecting the economic models, they tried the more honest approach, they proved the quants wrong. The number of malpractice claims fell.


1. Owning up early builds trust. When you're honest about a mistake, however angry others may be, they can't help but know you're telling the truth. Rebuilding any relationship requires trust, so this means you start in the right place.

2. Honesty prevents escalation. When patients resorted to the law, they had to reiterate the immense damage that had been done to them. This was sometimes exaggerated and it certainly put the patient in the depressing position of repeatedly describing the damage they lived with. Not surprisingly, this did little to encourage positive thinking or enthusiastic remediation. The lawsuit required that the victim occupy a bad place for a very long time.

3. Transparency points to the future rather than the past. When a mistake has been made, nothing can undo it. The most useful next step is to consider what might be done to repair the damage. This is a far more fruitful subject in which to invest time and energy.

What the physicians in Michigan learned was counter-intuitive: Far from saving face with denial and self-defense, they gained kudos by being open, honest and transparent. Their patients recovered more fully and faster. Legal costs came down and satisfaction went up.

I don't think this story is just about medicine. In every business relationship, mistakes occur. The faster you own up to them, the faster you learn where your weaknesses lie and the sooner you can start thinking about how to make yourself and your systems stronger. The old argument -- that a litigious culture gets in the way -- is really just an excuse for covering up our errors and shortcomings. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, to share information and to get better.

You can't choose whether to make mistakes or not. But you can decide whether or not you're going to learn from them. So what have you learned today?

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