Creating a “Mistake-Positive” Culture

DustyLeadership, Team BuildingLeave a Comment

What do Southwest Airlines, Johnson and Johnson, 3M and Mary Kay Cosmetics have in common? They all have created “mistake-positive” cultures, where people are encouraged and supported in taking responsibility for claiming and correcting their mistakes. They reward people for making the “right” kinds of mistakes, and they focus on actively learning from mistakes as a way of advancing the organization’s agenda and goals.

As Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, described it, “We reward people for failing forward.”

Why would the leadership in these organizations want people to create a mistake-positive culture? What is the gain from rewarding those who make mistakes? The number one gain is helping advance the company mission by improving bottom-line performance.

Performance gains are realized in three primary ways: increasing innovative thinking, enhancing organization-wide learning and better task execution through systemic accountability. This happens because people are not afraid to make mistakes, learn from them and share that learning with others.

Time is not wasted in hiding mistakes, blaming or in CYA behaviors. Failures are readily surfaced, examined and corrections made quickly. If they are the right kinds of mistakes they increase the innovative capacity of the organization.

As Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motors, wrote, “Success is only achieved through repeated failures and introspection.” The key would appear to be helping people understand the difference between good mistakes and bad mistakes.

“Failing forward” requires leaders to distinguish between acceptable or good mistakes versus unacceptable mistakes. A series of six questions helps distinguish between mistakes:

  • Was the mistake haphazard or made while making an honest effort to innovate or improve upon current practices?
  • Could this have been prevented with due diligence?
  • Was the mistake made because feedback from those who could have helped was either ignored or simply not sought?
  • Was this a mistake made due to a elf-serving agenda, or was it made in an effort to realize the mission or goals of the organization?
  • Was this an ethical lapse or an honest mistake?
  • Is this a mistake that has been committed several times or just once by this person?

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