In the last couple of days I've come across two contrasting, intriguing quotes.
One, from Franklin Roosevelt when he was facing the grave economic crisis of the Depression, exhorted "... Above all, try something."
The other, "Avoid mistakes, so you will be ready for surprises," is from a financial advisor of one of the nations largest banks. He said it was his father's advice to him. He then went on to admit several mistakes, which left the bank ill prepared for the surprise of mortgage-backed securities failure.
His father's advice is good, but it needs a big qualifier. Maybe, the saying should be, "don't make BIG mistakes." Little ones can be a good thing—if you learn from them.
Few people (that I know) have made more mistakes than I. Some of mine were so impossibly stupid that even their memory makes me cringe. I'm not proud of them, but I am proud of two things: 1) there was a lot of learning from many of them; and 2) most of them were not very expensive—at least in dollars.
I often reflect that one of the reasons that I'm still in the business I am is that I've had the freedom to make some mistakes and no one fired me.
The reason that the mistakes never killed the business was that, most of the time, we've been prudent enough not to bet more than we could afford to lose. If you totaled up all of the collective mistakes, we've probably paid millions for our education, but it was in relatively small installments over a long period of time. (The bank, on the other hand, made a couple of hundred-million-dollar bets all at the same time, leading to some severe problems.)
Helping Others Learn from Mistakes
Part of management's job...in fact their responsibility, is to help others learn from their mistakes. Of course, I'd prefer that they not make the mistakes in the first place—at least on our nickel. But, realistically, if we're going to innovate, we have to take chances. And if we take chances, we're going to be wrong some of the time. That's the price of admission for this ride of ours. I often see management say “listen to what I'm telling you and you won't make the same mistakes I did”, but human nature being what it is, I know they're going to do it anyway. Input from those that have gone there before them can hopefully at least minimize the impact.
Part of management's job is to make sure we don't make big mistakes. If we're trying something new, we try to make sure we test our way into it. If it is a new class or training style, we make sure customers think it is a good idea before we invest too much. If it is a new way of selling, we make sure we know sales costs, renewals, fulfillment expense, etc., before we roll it out in too large a fashion.
If a manager wants to try some wacky way to motivate his or her employees, it might be OK to test it in a small way. It's usually a mistake to go too far, too fast.
But Try Something
It's also managements' job to make sure that people don't get penalized unfairly if they try and fail. There are all sorts of caveats to that, of course. No company can afford one of their locations to “go rogue” on them because people who make the same mistake over and over again, or who risk too much too soon, do not do the company—or their careers—any good.
This brings us back to the Franklin Roosevelt quote. He said, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
The advice is good for a business, or a career. Try something. Don't just sit there talking and speculating. Control the experiment so you learn, quickly, as much as you can, and don't lose more than you can afford.
So, I offer to that bank CFO a revised quote, "Avoid big mistakes, so you will be ready for surprises."
Managers have a reputation for being cautious. That's not an evil thing—but experimentation is a necessary ingredient for growth and improvement.
We can help our careers and our employers by looking for easy, inexpensive ways to test our innovations.
Thanks for reading.