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Here is a little refrain that makes us smile and that easily comes to mind when we make a mistake. But if Britney Spears sings it loud and clear, many of us are much more discreet about our mistakes. And this is one of the paradoxes of mistakes. Naturally, we prefer to keep them to ourselves, even though they often represent an enormous learning potential. For ourselves and for others. A psychologically safe environment promotes both sharing and learning..

Yes, it takes courage to admit our mistakes, and even more courage to talk about them when we are struggling with negative feelings. It is difficult to overcome anxiety, shame and guilt to admit an error in judgment, reasoning or discernment. For most of us, it's a sense of losing a bit of our reputation, our poise, and especially our confidence.
So how do we get over our fears? First, by understanding why it is so difficult to do so. Indeed, assuming one's mistakes is a bit like assuming oneself as... fallible. 
By admitting and sharing weaknesses lies the strength of all successful teams and the opportunity for organizations to be truly learning. 

Let's take the example of a team member who has just "missed" a sale. If everyone remains silent about this, starting with him, there is an elephant in the room that will affect the atmosphere. If, on top of that, he is blamed for the missed deal - which he will experience as a failure - he will doubt his worth and be even less inclined to speak up.

On the other hand, if a colleague shares the same experience: "I also had difficulties selling this service to clients with the same profile as yours. We should discuss this situation with the whole team and see how we could do it differently."

Ins't this a constructive way to make everyone benefit and to depersonalize the situation?

Some experiences or mistakes are like diamonds in the rough, it is by working on them that they reveal their different facets and take on their brilliance. They have an exceptional power of transformation. (Etude - Apprendre de ses erreurs).

In the workplace, it is more common to learn from and celebrate successes than mistakes.

It's more positive, rewarding and encouraging.
But less challenging. Less transformational.

Thus, allowing my team and my organization to learn from my mistakes is one of my contributions to collective intelligence, a guarantee of agility and sustainability.

In the innovation and knowledge businesses, the value of information, data and analysis is key. A mistake contains tons of it, provided that one creates the space and takes the time to deconstruct it, just like any report or excel file.

Pixar, for example, practices this collective learning during the creation phase of a new animated film. Each film director submits his or her project to the "Braintrust", a small group of directors and scriptwriters, who give factual, constructive and frank feedback to guide the scriptwriters and enable them to rework a scene, a line, a character. 
With the success that we know.

"Braintrust" is an official psychologically safe space, to share, exchange - in general good humor - opinions, comments and proposals.

However, psychological safety is not:
  • An excuse for mistakes nor to minimize them 
  • An opportunity for being less accountable

Nor does it imply de facto emotional security. Imagine the screenwriter at Pixar who has just spent a month working on a sequence, which generates many remarks and not so positive reactions during the "Braintrust" session. It requires humility and emotional courage to take the feedback.

Now imagine that you are sharing a mistake - proven or not - in a meeting. Even in a benevolent environment, you might go through multiple emotions and feelings. Indeed, your interlocutors may have a negative initial reaction but then express just as much gratitude to you.

A mistake is still a mistake, but making it visible will allow you to reap all the possible benefits, even those you don't think of. 
The post-it note was indeed "invented" following a dosage error!
And then, there are mistakes and mistakes! It is not a question of endorsing incompetence. Some of them do not help anyone, others on the contrary are potential gems.
Amy Edmondson (The fearless organisation) differentiates 3 types of errors.
  • Avoidable errors : Forgetting to follow a safety rules
  • Complex errors : The Columbia accident (NASA)
  • Smart mistakes : The pacemaker
Avoidable errors have low learning content. They can best be used to review a process, adjust rules, improve an information flow or rethink a workload.

Complex errors have a high learning content. The Columbia rocket explosion is a tragic example.

By prioritizing respect for hierarchy and giving in to the pressure of performance (the shuttle launch), the silence of some engineers still resonates heavily with the families of the astronauts and with NASA.  In a psychologically safe environment, the engineers concerned would have dared to share their doubts about the solidity of the joints at negative temperature, thus avoiding the tragedy.

Mistakes are smart when, at the end of the process of reflection and discussion, they lead to a technological advance, an innovation. They are worthy of celebration. Their learning content is immense. Doug Dietz, Industrial Designer. Howe he transformed his "mistake" with the input of a team. Video

Thus, considering mistakes as "natural" or even as an asset can remove many relunctances. Not being afraid of making a mistake is liberating. The main thing is not to avoid them but to "recycle" them. Once valued, they can be brilliant.

What mistake would you be willing to share for its "recycling" potential?