2003 - The value of mistakes
Len Cook, head of the UK's Office
for National Statistics, made a remarkable discovery
just recently - £4bn of national income
he had not known was there. You might think it
would be a cause for dancing in the streets but
Mr Cook is apologising for the oversight. "We
make more mistakes than we should," he said
in the FT this week.
His department had underestimated
the amount of construction going on and its contribution
to national output. Mr Cook regards the error
as serious and I suppose it is, given the massive
impact of statistics on investment.
But his statement about mistakes
is forgiving. He does not rule them out or say
they should not happen. He says there should be
fewer of them and, by inference, that perhaps
they should not be so big.
This seems both fair and realistic,
given that forecasting based on statistical analysis
is a notoriously inexact science.
If I had a boss, I would want
someone like Mr Cook. He is not making excuses
for the mistake. Quite the contrary; he promises
to do better in future. But he is big enough to
own up when a mistake is discovered. Perhaps it
is easier to do so when the nation is £4bn
better off than it thought it was. For the chancellor,
it was something like turning up the Monopoly
card that says: "Bank error in your favour".
I cannot help noticing, however,
that many employers are becoming less tolerant
of mistakes in the workplace and I am not sure
that this is a good thing.
I need to be frank here. Part
of the reason I was comforted to read of the ONS
oversight is that it eased the guilt I feel over
my own inadequacies.
It is in the nature of journalism
that mistakes in print are always laid bare. They
never get past the people who read this column.
Mine tend to be silly errors that I find difficult
A few weeks ago I mentioned that
the Great Plague of London started in 1666, when
every schoolchild knows it began in 1665. All
right, it was not the crime of the century - I
knew the dates well - but the mistake still happened
and, sure enough, I had more than one e-mail putting
Sometimes the mistake is grammatical.
I was once pulled up by an FT reader for using
the Latin phrase in tandem, which means “one
behind another”, when I was describing people
working side by side. Once you know this, you
do not make the mistake again. The tendency instead
is to join the pedants and cluck when you see
the same misuse elsewhere.
In fact, before the godsend of
spell-checking software, my career path was an
untidy trail of bizarre and eccentric spellings.
I cannot spell. Never could. On a good day I can
spell "necessary" but not "necessarily".
Sometimes I transpose letters
and once I transposed a city and state, placing
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I put it down to
a form of dyslexia but this does bot seem to wash
with some people, who treat dyslexia as a lame
excuse for incompetence.
I should offer no excuses but
it is difficult to write about my own mistakes
without some plea of mitigation. I am not proud
of this carelessness and frequently beat myself
up in acts of penance and remorse.
If we do not face up to our mistakes
and accept that they happen in every job, if we
are fearful of punishment, the chances are that
errors will be concealed, overlooked and, in some
cases, compounded. In these circumstances we can
forget innovation , according to Stefan Thomke,
associate professor of technology and operations
management at Harvard Business School.
In a new book, Experimentation
Matters*, Prof Thomke concedes that careless mistakes
- such as mine - are something we should try to
weed out. But failure when experimenting with
something new, he says, should be rewarded, not
punished, when lessons are learnt.
Self-recrimination is one thing.
The threat of punishment from above is something
else. Too often, he notes, employees are embarrassed
by failure that they believe will lead to a loss
of standing in their company.
"This policy is especially
true in workplaces that have adopted 'zero tolerance
for failure' or 'error-free' work environments,"
writes Prof Thomke.
"The result is waste, not
only the kind of waste that comes from lower productivity
and longer time to market but waste from not taking
advantage of the innovation potential that new
technologies can provide."
Managers, he says, need to rethink
the role of failure in their businesses. More
bosses, he suggests, should adopt the attitude
of Tom Watson Sr, the founder of International
Business Machines, who is said to have called
into his office a young executive who had lost
Dollars 10m while trying to develop a new venture.
When the executive offered his resignation, Watson
said: "You can't be serious. We've just spent
£10m educating you."
Prof Thomke quotes a study of
learning rates among nursing teams in two teaching
hospitals. It expected to find the largest number
of errors among the poorest teams, In fact the
opposite was true.
The team that learnt the most,
whose members worked best with each other and
achieved the strongest performance, registered
the highest number of errors. In this team, errors
were tolerated as long as people learnt from them.
In that sense it was safe to fail.
Authoritarian teams reported
fewer errors but this was because people were
unwilling to take responsibility for their actions
and therefore they learnt less.
In a further experiment, Prof
Thomke found that people were more willing to
try new ideas when managers explicitly encouraged
experiment and were consistent in refusing to
censure failure. This is a tough lesson for managers
who seek to outlaw sloppy behaviour. It is difficult
to be kind about failure. The key is to seize
some learning from the experience.
This work appears to be proving
the sense of the old proverb: to err is human;
to forgive, divine. Perhaps you could add a rider,
that to congratulate in these circumstances is
Of course, in safety-related
jobs such as air traffic control and train driving,
mistakes can be a matter of life and death. But
training for these roles can allow mistakes in
simulation exercises. This is not to say that
all workplace mistakes or failures are acceptable.
Gross negligence cannot be excused.
Yet work that can tolerate experimentation
- and much of it can - appears to feed off errors
and failures. If necessity is the acknowledged
mother of invention, it may be time to recognise
failure as the father.
Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for
Innovation , by Stefan H. Thomke, is published
by Harvard Business School Press, $35.
as a pdf file