Lessons From Early Career Mistakes

Early in my career, I was responsible for creating and publishing a user manual for thousands of employees at a pharmaceutical company. I painstakingly documented procedural steps, double-checked content, and agonized over word choice. The final file looked amazing! I emailed the file to the printer and drained the budget by upgrading to a heavy-weight paper. Soon, a humongous brown box was at my desk.

Savoring the moment, I pulled out the top manual and admired the cover art. Turning to page one, my heart sank when I saw that the formatting was “off”;  half of the content was on one page, the other half on the next. I hadn’t requested a final printed proof. We shipped the manual “as is” because we couldn’t afford a reprint.

The memory of this failure was painful for some time. However, I learned to think carefully through points of failure and embrace it as a learning experience. Indeed, failure is an essential ingredient in the learning process, so let’s reframe failure as the learning experience it is. 

Similarly, we have all encountered bumps and bruises from failure. I have researched and read, reflected, and reviewed how to bounce back from mistakes. I always pay close attention to stories of failure shared on the internet, because misery loves company. I have celebrated the resilience of people’s failure recoveries because don’t we all love a great comeback story? Over time, I have learned how to make peace with failure. If something goes wrong or fails, we feel terrible and resolve to do better in the future. 

Perhaps you have never experienced professional failures. This may mean you are averse to adequate risk, and/or setting your targets to avoid it. Scrum teams that deliver sprint goals 100% of the time may be overly cautious, lacking challenge, or not stretching to the team’s full capabilities. Without some level of healthy risk-taking, Scrum teams may not reach their full potential or achieve productivity improvements.

The ideas here are not intended to rationalize failure but to acknowledge that there are failure opportunities in every industry, even those where it is vital to get things right the first time, such as flying to the moon. “Failure is not an option” was the tagline for the film “Apollo 13.”  However, I imagine this same sentiment echoes throughout the minds, offices, hallways, and cafeterias of real NASA.

“Failure is not an option” can be applied as the outcome of any process. To say it more clearly; we can fail fast and often while planning and developing, so that we avoid failure when executing – when failure is truly not an option, such as with NASA or even with your organization.

Consider Robert I. Sutton’s Forgive and Remember: How a Good Boss Responds to Mistakes:

First, when mistakes happen, begin by assuming that the fault lies with the system, not the people. Second, forgive people who make mistakes and encourage them to talk openly about what they have learned. The best managers follow the mantra “forgive and remember” rather than “forgive and forget” or, worse yet, “blame, remember who screwed up and hold a grudge against them.” Sure, there are still times when people lack the training or skills to do a job well, and the system is not really to blame. But if you manage people, think twice the next time you’re searching for a scapegoat. First, try changing the system.

Six Strategies to Reframe Failure to Your Advantage

1. Reframe the Idea of Failure

Create a safe space for reflection on failure. Reframe failure as a byproduct of innovation and creation. Optimize environments so that individuals do not try to hide or obfuscate failures, but bring them to light so that the conditions can be adjusted. Be tolerant of mistakes and seek learning opportunities rather than directing blame.

2. Psychological Safety

Reflect on the level of Psychological Safety within your organization. Recognize that Psychological Safety (also known as Team Trust), is the result of an organization, not a personality trait. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and that members have “a sense of confidence the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”  Teams that work in an organization with high levels of Psychological Safety are found to make fewer mistakes and reduce failure blast radius.

3. Review Your Response

When there is a lack of Psychological Safety or if you or your team responds to failures negatively, people may not disclose failures or speak up. The ripple effect could be disastrous. A better approach is to encourage people to talk openly about challenges and seek to understand.

4. Test & Adapt

Perfectionism is the belief that you always have to get things right the first time. When possible, try small iterations to limit the impact of failure until the objective is successfully achieved. Incremental improvement is a tenant of agile development. The concept of “Fail fast, fail small, learn, and move on” can be effective during the planning/development stages. For optimal outcomes, validate ideas early, and refine them often, prior to production.

5. Develop Resilience

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Cultivate resilience by building your emotional intelligence, maintaining a positive outlook, and focusing on your strengths.

6. Root Cause Analysis

Begin with a structured investigation process: define the problem, collect relevant data, analyze the data, identify potential causes, and use various analytical tools such as the 5 Whys, fault tree analysis, or fishbone diagrams. The goal is to pinpoint the root cause and develop preventive actions.

Supportive Questions to Ask When Reflecting on Failure

  1. What did we learn from this moment? 
  2. What is the next best action that will move us closer to or help us achieve our goals?
  3. What resources may be helpful with these challenges?

And, if you are sending thousands of pages to a printer for printing, make sure to request a physical copy to proof.

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