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How to Learn from Your Mistakes

Learn from mistakes

In today’s business world, more businesswomen are making bigger decisions in less time and with less information than ever. That also means people are messing up more than ever.

The flip side of making progress is making mistakes.

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere. The key is to encounter those errors sooner than your competitors, so you have more chances to learn and win.

Risking failure to learn something new makes sense, but it’s difficult advice to heed for the risk-averse. The idea that it’s possible (or even desirable) to create organizations in which mistakes are rare or non-existent is a delusion. Failure is a necessary cost of doing business. Assuming otherwise only encourages employees to hide mistakes, shift the blame for them, or pretend they’re something else.

The quest for perfection demonizes error, but small mistakes can be great learning opportunities. They show cracks–areas of vulnerability–that can cost the future viability of a company.

How can you make mistakes work for you? Here are some tips on how to learn from and minimize the setbacks that come with moving forward.

The cover-up is always worse than the crime. This is the favorite aphorism of Washington politicians, many of whom ignore their own advice the moment something goes wrong. Don’t wait to tell the people who need to know when a problem arises. The best damage control is to preempt complaints before they happen.

If it’s your team, it’s your mistake. Taking ownership of a mistake is a powerful way to exude a sense of accountability. You demonstrate that you’ve got things under control and that you’re a leader. People will forget the mistake, but they’ll remember your behavior.

Follow-up is as important as follow-through. Plenty of mistakes can be buried before anyone finds out. Quickly remedied, with few repercussions, these mistakes are the kind that most people fix and forget. They are also the kind most likely to need thorough investigation. Simple mistakes don’t always have simple causes; they can be the result of systemic problems that will recur if not corrected.

Seize the moment of truth. A luxury hotel loses track of a valued guest’s reservation. An airline loses a passenger’s luggage. Whenever such problems surface, there’s a brief period during which front-line employees can turn a bad situation into a memorable one. If front-liners act wisely, a disgruntled customer walks away with renewed faith in the company. If they don’t, the company may never get a second chance. Customer-service gurus call these encounters “moments of truth.” There are moments of truth inside a company, too, rare times when people can gather to learn from their mistakes. A general rule for when to initiate these moments of truth: the sooner, the better.

Sometimes the best fix is a quick fix. For people struggling to keep up with the dizzying pace of life inside startups, professional service firms, and other fast-growing companies, getting smarter about mistakes can seem like a worthwhile goal that’s out of reach. Who has time for official postmortems or learning plans? Especially when the next round of mistakes is around the corner.

If you’re adept at self-coaching, you can learn the most valuable lessons from your mistakes within minutes after they happen — if you actually use those minutes to think about what went wrong.

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