Yes, Virginia, there are good mistakes. They need to be handled differently than do bad mistakes. In general, encourage intentional mistakes with minor impact and consider, excuse or prevent the rest.

Intention And Impact

While most mistakes are unintentional, evolution and survival depend on continual learning and adaptation – often from intentional mistakes. At the same time there’s a material difference between the impact different mistakes make. One of the Gore Company’s guiding principles is that everyone should consult with other associates “before taking actions that might be ‘below the waterline’ — causing serious damage to the company.” Hence our general guidance above.

Encourage Intentional Mistakes With Minor Impact

Even if you are sure plan A is right, push your team to test plans bracketing plan A. These might include things like increased and decreased investment plans at the same time as your “right” approach. Two of the three approaches will be mistakes. That’s how you get cheap learning and growth out of intentional mistakes.

Handle intentional mistakes with minor impact by encouraging others to make them.


Consider Intentional Mistakes With Major Impact

There are going to be times when you must bet the ranch. There are going to be times when that bet goes wrong. One of the hallmarks of BRAVE leadership is an ability to take and manage those risks.

Handle intentional mistakes with major impact by understanding the risks below the waterline, gathering objective data, consulting with others with diverse perspectives and considering your options carefully. Tapping into diverse perspectives is one of the best ways to get around groupthink. If all you’re going to do is talk to people that agree with you, don’t waste everyone’s time. Instead, listen carefully to those with different points of view.


Excuse Or Apologize For Unintentional Mistakes With Minor Impact

In a recap I circulated about my earlier article on Why You Should Eliminate Your Chief Innovation Officer, I mistakenly referred to eliminating Chief Information Officers. Several people pointed out the misplaced word. Many even defended Information Officers. While the mistake was completely unintentional and all my fault, it had the benefit of allowing me to reconnect with all sorts of people. I thanked them, apologized and moved on.

You can get away with unintentional mistakes with minor impact – once. Own up to the mistake, fix the issue and make sure it never happens again. In these cases it’s never the mistake that gets you. It’s the cover up.


Prevent Unintentional Mistakes With Major Impact By Deploying Redundant Systems

These are the mistakes that sink ships or companies or reputations. You read about these every day: the trading company that suffers a computer glitch; the otherwise well-run company that misunderstands the true financials of a big acquisition; Volkswagen completely failing to live up to its own values. These can be what Warren Bennis and Steven Sample refer to as “final failures.”

Handle unintentional mistakes with major impact by mitigating risk. Knowing there are going to be some unintentional mistakes, build in redundant systems to check or protect things. The builders of the Panama Canal had redundant systems all over the place so no ship could unintentionally knock open the door to a lock and wipe out everything down hill. Learn from them.


Putting It All Together

Here’s the advice:

• Encourage intentional mistakes with minor impact.

• Consider intentional mistakes with major impact.

• Excuse or apologize for unintentional mistakes with minor impact.

• Prevent unintentional mistakes with major impact by deploying redundant systems.

Minor Impact                 Once      Cheap Learning
Major Impact   Redundant Systems   Considered Choice 
          Unintentional            Intentional

East Tenth Group’s Michelle Tenzyk sums it up well:

Mistakes happen. Every day, they do. It is what happens next that is the critical and a too often missed leadership piece of the puzzle. Do we overlook them, acknowledge them, take action to reset the course, and/or learn from them for maximum impact with clear accountability? Therein is the opportunity for the mistake to set the exceptional BRAVE leaders apart.


Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook and links to each of its 300+ individual articles on Forbes organized by category.