Wake-up Call: Don’t let your mistakes go to waste

Look for reasons that you might be wrong before you commit

How many mistakes do people get to make when a company says, “We want you to take risks, but we will hold you accountable for the results”?

How many mistakes do people get to make when a company says, “We want you to take risks, but we will hold you accountable for the results”?

 

In business, we prefer to make the cheap mistakes over the expensive ones. We tend to try new things on ourselves, test them and offer them in limited distribution before we release them to everyone.

Similarly, we nurture and guide promising young managers through jobs of increasing responsibility. That kind of executive-rearing might avoid expensive mistakes, but it’s also expensive in itself. For one thing, it takes a long time. For another, how many mistakes do people get to make when a company says, “We want you to take risks, but we will hold you accountable for results”?

Psychologist Scott Plous describes an experiment in his book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. A subject gets three numbers, such as three, five and seven.

His job is to infer the simple rule the experimenter had in mind when creating the series. The subject can propose other three-number series (“11, 13, 17”), and the experimenter responds whether they fit the rule (“yes”). When the subject thinks he knows the rule, he tells the experimenter, who says whether it is right (“no”).

The experiment isn’t about the rule. The experiment is about how subjects look for the rule. Subjects typically design their series to confirm their ideas, not challenge them, and they almost always get it wrong. The obstacle to becoming right is looking for confirmation that you are already right.

Looking for signs that you’re wrong is important in business, because being wrong is often not obvious until it’s painful. Unfortunately, many people have a vested interest in being right after a decision is made. That’s why the trick is to ferret out potential mistakes early on.

My best mistake came in a pricing-strategy simulation I wrote. When I entered my strategies, I figured I’d enjoy an ego rush. Then I saw how my strategies performed. At first I thought there was a bug in my software. There wasn’t.

Confronted with evidence that I was wrong, I compared my strategies with the most successful ones. In a flash I saw not only what I did wrong, but also what I could do better. My big, cheap mistake turned out to be a great learning experience.

We all know that mistakes are inevitable. The solution is not to tolerate mistakes or avoid risk. It’s to confirm less and challenge more. That means we need more than opportunities to make cheap mistakes – we need to understand why we made them.

Don’t waste the mistakes you’re probably already making. Take time to go back to their roots. Look for reasons that you might be wrong before you commit. Use role-playing exercises; put yourself in your competitors’ place. Ask yourself how someone would argue against your position. You’re not necessarily wrong, but no one’s always right. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

Mark Chussil is the founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies

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