Managing Mistakes: Six Steps to Creating a Supportive Culture

Virginia Suliman

May 29, 2018

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"Test and learn," "fail fast," and "fail forward" are all phrases we hear and parrot back to our organizations to feel relevant and in touch with the innovative spirit. Putting these approaches into practice—especially within large, established companies—can be difficult at best and impossible at worst.

And when you do succeed in shifting the culture, how do you manage the inevitable failures that follow? When overseeing technology, knowing how to manage a team through mistakes may define your career.

In my experience, the first step to navigating the post-failure landscape is to discern between mistakes and conscientious failure. In the simplest terms, I define a mistake as misguided judgment; you or your team took a path you felt was correct, though it turned out to be wrong.

Conscientious failure is intentionally taking the path with unknown outcomes—one where missing the mark is a possible outcome. Creating a culture that allows a level of both is critical to getting to that state of creative nirvana.

In this piece, I would like to focus on mistakes and how to teach your team to recover from a misstep. I firmly believe that a good employee (and a good person) always strives to be the best they can be, and when they fall short of a goal, the pressure of a mistake can be overwhelming.

I make sure my team knows that I view a mistake, perceived or real, in the context of the work they do and as an opportunity to improve—always. How you respond to a mistake is as important as—if not more important than—how you handle success.

Learning to take a mistake and make it something positive is the key to long-term achievement. Crying over the proverbial spilled milk will not move you forward, and it will quickly thwart your ability to overcome the issue. Here are some tips to help you and your team get on with it.

1. Own the Mistake

Accountability is imperative. Take responsibility swiftly and fully for the action. Trying to lay blame will only leave you looking like you have even more to hide than what was exposed.

2. Embrace the Mistake

Being comfortable with the word "mistake" is a good first step. Failure is simply a lack of success. We have placed societal connotations on a word that has taught us to think it means much more.

Your self-worth, value, and character are not tied to a single success or failure in life. Mistakes are OK. To understand the perspectives and opinions of those who were affected by the issue, you must embrace it completely.

3. Repair the Mistake

Like a broken window, you cannot simply say you broke it, embrace the implications, and then not fix the window. Repairing the issue to the best of your ability in the most expedient manner will allow everyone to move on to the next opportunity for success.

Sometimes a mistake does not have an apparent fix. If you cannot see the appropriate fix, you should engage an outside party to aid you in illuminating the solutions and opportunities.

4. Learn from the Mistake

Take the time to write down what you did wrong and what you did right. Often, mistakes are 90% right and 10% wrong. Simple adjustments can make all the difference.
If you do not do this critical step, you may adjust course so wildly that you make things worse on the next go-round. Again, you may need to engage someone else to see the whole picture.

5. Return to the Scene

There is nothing more important than getting back on the horse. Finding ways to re-engage with those involved will be critical to your ability to regain trust, alleviate fears, and restore your confidence. Returning to the scene is awkward and hard, but you can do it.

6. Aim to Not Repeat the Mistake

Assuming you did a good job with all of the above points, this goal should be achievable. If you have had multiple mistakes in the same area, it is time to seek out expertise in the area for a more in-depth approach.

History tells us that many of our finest technologists made mistakes—big and small—before achieving the work they are remembered for. Imagine what we might be missing today had they not embraced their missteps and learned from them.

Do not allow the embarrassment of a mistake keep you from trying new things or offering ideas. Equally, when you misstep, hold your head high and practice the steps outlined here to move on to your next success.

Virginia Suliman is the senior vice president for Hilton, representing all brands globally in the areas of digital, contact center, and property technology.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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