Let’s celebrate mistakes

Published on February 28, 2018   5 min

A selection of talks on Management, Leadership & Organisation

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I'm Henry Stewart, Chief Happiness Officer at Happy. And I want to talk to you about the idea of celebrating mistakes, because I can tell you at my company, if you ask people what they most like about working there, it's often that fact that is a no blame culture where they feel if they do the best and get it wrong, let's you celebrate.
What do you think all of these organizations have in common? Yes, you probably guessed it, they all believe in celebrating mistakes. "Brilliant Mistakes" is a book by Paul Schoemaker, who argues that 50 percent of all medical discoveries are the result of mistakes. We all know the Penicillin story of how trays were left out from the bacteria group or Viagra which was a complete side product of a completely different experiment. Einstein said, "If you do not make mistakes, what are you doing?" Google had a product called Google Wave which wasn't a success, you probably don't remember it, but the developers on it were given the same bonuses if it had succeeded. Why? Because they wanted to encourage that innovation. HCL is an Indian outsourcing company where to get promoted, you have to put in a 'Failure CV' and if you do not get enough wrong, you may not get promoted. TATA, another Indian company has a 'Failure Award', which is eagerly competed for and was put in place by the founder as he was near retirement to make sure it kept his innovation.
Huntsman is one I particularly like as an example. At Huntsman, a chemical company based in Middlesbrough, they used to have a big red button on the wall which if you pressed it, discharged all the chemicals into local river, which was not a good thing to happen. One day, they had the scaffolders come in and a guy with a long scaffold pole was walking around and you may have guessed it, he nudged the red button. When the scaffolding company found out they sacked him. But when Huntsman found out he'd been sacked, they insisted he'd be reinstated, be sent back to work then, and they even had little party to thank him. Why? Well, nobody actually saw him press that red button, he could have scoffed it, they wouldn't know. But he went in the control room and said, "I pressed some button, there's a red light on I don't know what the problem is." And as a result, the discharge was stopped within 30 minutes instead of 24 hours with minimum environmental damage and no fine. Because in reality, the problem is very rare and the mistake is if there's a cover up. What we want to create in our organizations is a culture where people feel free to own up and there aren't any cover ups. Because if somebody comes to me and says, "I've messed up with our biggest customer", I can fix that as long as they tell me straight away and I don't find that two weeks later from the customer. Because do we want mistakes? I reckon we do, we want to be trying new things and experiment. If say I start to work at an organization, I come to the end of my three months probation period, and I say, "I've been here three months and I've made no mistakes." What do you think? Well, either I'm lying or I'm really not trying very hard. We want to be creating environment where people are able to make mistakes, able to try new things.