Go Ahead, Screw Up!

Go Ahead, Screw Up! July 12, 2022

“Did anyone die,” I asked?


This is my standard question when someone comes to me confessing an error. While, thankfully, these instances are few, for me they represent a leadership and learning opportunity. Sure, I could take the individual to the proverbial woodshed and berate them for their indiscretion. But I know that the team-member reporting the deficiency has already beat THEMSELVES up before reporting their omission to their CEO. They don’t need a beating from me.

With my question, I accomplish two objectives. The first is to put the error into perspective. OK, so the package went to Dallas instead of Denver. Yes, it’s an inconvenience. Yes, it’s a breakdown in service. Yes, it shouldn’t have happened. But it wasn’t a life-or-death transgression. And it certainly wasn’t a failure…why?

Because, in a dynamic, progressive organization, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE. As the proverbial saying goes, “you either succeed or learn.” And I certainly don’t want an organization where people are fearful of reporting their challenges. No, I want an honest organization, one in which people have the courage to speak up…to confess…or celebrate…to learn.

Which leads me to my typical follow-on question…”what went wrong with the system that allowed this to happen, I ask?” Yes, many mistakes are simple human error…or are they? My belief is that such errors are the result of a hole in a system. A projector that was supposed to be in the package wasn’t. A call that was supposed to be scheduled didn’t make the calendar. A vendor that was supposed to deliver on a certain day was misinformed. These are more likely systems issues as opposed to people issues.

It’s hard to start blaming someone for such a goof when the means and methodology to the outcome is unclear or the checklist hasn’t been updated in two years…or doesn’t exist at all.

Systems. Successful enterprises are all about them. A system is a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done. It’s an organized framework or method. In the business world, systems are used to achieve repeatable results. Successful practices are built on effective systems. Little is left to chance. Each process has a set of repeatable steps. Little is left to chance.

A key objective of any CEO is to systematize everything. What’s the process? How do we do things here? What steps are required to meet the objective? What might go wrong and how do we fix it if it does? These are the important questions that drive systemization.

Thomas Edison, was asked by a reporter about the invention of the lightbulb, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” “Great success is built on failure, frustration and even catastrophe.”

So, the next time someone comes to confess an error…or you uncover one…look behind the event itself for the learnings…it’s those that are the keys to long-term success.

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