Photo by: zettberlin | Source: photocase.com

The past year seems to have yielded various waves of content celebrating making mistakes. Advancing the “failure at the heart of innovation” theme seems to have become a cause célèbre for the creativity and innovation set. Celebrating mistakes as part of innovation was the topic of a July Innochat on Twitter on innovation failure and, most recently, a Wall Street Journal article on “Better Ideas through Failure.”

I grew up with a clear perfectionist streak (or whatever term you would use to suggest whatever is deeper, wide, and more permanent than a “streak”), I wrestle with a gleeful attitude toward failure.

Yet between Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk “On Being Wrong” and recognition of my own experiences where learning from something that did not succeed as planned has led to much better future results, openness to errors clearly has its place in creativity and innovation.

However, I think celebrating mistakes in and of themselves is an easy banner for behaviors that don’t come easily to many people or many organizations, for that matter. It’s not so much organizations are celebrating failure as the willingness to move forward on efforts before everything is figured out and an appreciation for learning when something doesn’t go right.

Being Bad at Making Mistakes

What really needs to happen in an organization to benefit from an apparent willingness to celebrate and reward failure?

Instead of listing behaviors for celebrating mistakes (which I started to do but failed to complete), it’s much easier to list mistakes individuals and organizations make at making mistakes. Thinking through the personal perfectionist demons I’ve had to try (and still try) to slay, here are eight mistakes that can shut you off from productive failure:

  • Being afraid of fear
  • Not being able to manage or tolerate ample levels of risk
  • Becoming easily embarrassed – either personally or organizationally
  • Failing to properly frame and learn from experiments
  • Being uncomfortable with unanswered questions
  • Doing a bad job of making assumptions which allow you to keep making progress
  • Focusing too strongly on too much detail
  • Not being able to fix things as you go

Getting Good at Making Mistakes

If you can get past these eight, you’ll be a lot better at making mistakes that pay off in the future. What about you – what other mistakes at making mistakes have you encountered – in either yourself or others?  - Mike Brown


Download the free ebook, “Taking the NO Out of InNOvation” to help you get a lot more comfortable with everything not going right, yet still being innovative! For an organizational boost, contact The Brainzooming Group to help your team be more successful by rapidly expanding strategic options and creating innovative plans to efficiently implement. Email us at brainzooming@gmail.com or call us at 816-509-5320 to learn how we can deliver these benefits for you.

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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  • Anne Miner

    I agree with you Mike! The enemy of innovation is the inability to tolerate mistakes – or non-successes.

    I like to use Thomas Edison as my role model … when asked about his experience with developing the light bulb, Edison explained, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have
    succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have
    eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will

    Of course it was not always this way, like you, I came with a built in drive to perfection – that unattainable state of being. I spent the first 10 years building my company, The Dunvegan Group, to a level of near perfection – we could execute flawlessly. And, I realized that we were not innovating, we were avoiding new technologies and techniques. Innovation, R&D is messy and uncomfortable and often we must adjust our course midstream.

    A colleague helped me to see the folly of staying in that safe, near perfect state. I am in the research business and he pointed out to me, “If we knew exactly how to do it, it would be engineering.” And, he reminded me of Albert Einstein’s comment, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”.

    It takes courage to live with uncertainty; to endure ambiguity and press on in the face of discouraging results. I still struggle with celebrating mistakes and failures though.

    My preference is to refer to these situations as necessitating a “course correction”.

    • http://twitter.com/tedcoine Ted Coine

      Anne, I’d never heard that Einstein quote. I L-O-V-E it! Thanks for adding another arrow to my quiver. 

    • http://www.brainzooming.com Mike Brown

      Great insights Anne! For me, I often have to set up something less risk where it’s fine to experiment. Interestingly when it comes to blogging, I was a lot more experimental with my old blog because it wasn’t a business yet, and I had set it up initially. While this site is so much better for any number of reasons, the fact I didn’t design it and it now supports the business, keeps me from getting in and tinkering with it nearly as much. Think I may have just convinced myself it’s time for a blog experiment!

  • http://twitter.com/tedcoine Ted Coine

    Mike, I love this post – thank you so much! Like you, I am a recovering perfectionist – my guess is, whatever personal quirk inspires some of us to seek accomplishment inherently dislikes failure. But like you and so many other leaders, I’ve come to learn that the only way to breakthrough success is to fall down, skin my knees, learn from it, and forge ahead.

    Your 8 tips are all great. The one I’d reiterate is your last, not being able to fix things as you go. After all, the beauty of mistakes isn’t in the failure for its own sake, it’s in the lessons learned. Failing often and learning on the fly – that’s the sweet spot where innovation meets success.

    Have you read “Adapt?” by Tim Hartford. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in this topic – or in success more generally. 

    • http://www.brainzooming.com Mike Brown

      Appreciate the comment and your personal perspective, Ted. I haven’t read “Adapt,” but it sounds like it’s right on the money with idea of being able to course correct. 

  • Chuck Dymer

    A few months back the Kansas City Chapter of The Industrial Designers Society of America held its first annual Un-Meritable Awards Program at The Idea Loft (http://bit.ly/p6tMuD). Local designers, many from KC’s largest companies, shared their failures with design students from the University of Kansas. The point of the session was not to celebrate failure, per se, but to remind the students that there is no great design without some failure along the way. Because our culture does not readily accept failure, too often leaders and workers hold back–and nothing great gets accomplished. The Un-Meritable Award is a reminder that mistakes happen, learn from them, and pursue greatness.
    Thanks for your post, Mike. If we make mistakes (and we will) let’s make mistakes that pay off in the future!

    • http://www.brainzooming.com Mike Brown

      Thanks for sharing about the Un-Meritable Awards, Chuck! The storytelling aspect of helping people understand there is life (and very likely a better life) after a mistake is important in helping those reluctant to push themselves realize a mistake isn’t the end of the world as they know it!

  • http://jlmade.blogspot.com Jacob Yount

    Here’s one of mine, Mike and it might be connected to the embarrassment category, but I allow mistakes to cause me to freeze up, get irritated or digress where I’m no longer interested in the project.  My stubborn mind sometimes thinks, either done right, the first time or not at all.  Enjoyed the post.

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