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Dialog 2: When a mistake has been made


A Portuguese proverb reminds us that stumbling is not falling. Indeed, viewed from the right perspective, mistakes are not only inevitable occurrences, they could even be construed as beneficial ones—or at the very least, as expensive lessons.

It's words that so often lead us astray. In the May 10, 1992, issue of the Boston Herald, Continental Airlines advertised a one-way fare to Los Angeles for $48 instead of $148. The multimillion-dollar mistake could not be undone.

Be Careful

If the penalties for failure are too severe, your staff may stop trying. Consider instead the atmosphere Michael Eisner established in the Land of Make-Believe: "At Disney, we feel the only way to succeed creatively is to fail. Failure is not only tolerated, but fear of criticism for foolish ideas is abolished."

But in many business situations, the words that led you into trouble can also lead you out of it. Here you've failed to keep your secretary informed of your schedule and your boss is angry because he wasn't able to reach you.

Figure 3.2 When a Mistake Has Been Made.


The Apologize-Devise Strategy will resolve a great many mistake situations. If the person to whom you're apologizing, however, insists on Atomizing—that is, he's going over and over the mistake, what-iffing it to death, nitpicking ad nauseam—then you may need to Baptize or agree to start anew. We'll explore all these possibilities in the following scripts.

Further Considerations

Could deliberate mistakes give you a sense of the width of your customer base? It seems that was the intent behind a Campbell's Soup advertisement that cited 21 kinds of soup but actually listed 22. Hundreds of people contacted the company, giving it a sense of how carefully its ads were read and fulfilling a second purpose as well: Campbell's wanted to get people talking about their product.

After you've made a serious mistake or misjudgment, work hard to correct it by undertaking a project and steering it to success. You don't want the stamp of failure to stay on you.

Be Careful

Try creating a new mindset toward errors—at least some of the time. In-stead of bemoaning mistakes, ask your co-workers, "How can we turn this around?" Or, "What good can come of this?" You might even put this quote from the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land, up in the meeting room: "A mistake is an opportunity, the full value of which we have yet to realize."

You may wish to keep track of the cost of mistakes that you or someone on your team is making. If the costs run too high, it may mean further training is necessary.

Use the Five-Why Technique for uncovering root causes of mistakes. With this approach, you just keep asking "Why" (typically five times) until you get to the bottom of the problem.

Before implementing an idea, ask trusted co-workers or someone such as your mentor to evaluate the idea. Such scrutiny can often prevent the mistakes associated with premature execution.

What the Experts Say

Professor John Senders of the University of Toronto has classified errors into four categories. There are errors of repetition, errors of omission, errors of substitution, and errors of commission. Generally speaking, the way to avoid making mistakes is to attend to each step in a process, plan carefully, and avoid being distracted.

To take the onus of embarrassment off the shoulders of a person, consider having a Most-Grievous-Error Day once a year. (We're talking about nonfatal errors, of course.) A prize could be given to the person who made the most costly mistake or the most embarrassing blunder, the most awkward verbal gaffe, and so on.

Ask Yourself

  • How do I treat others who make mistakes?

  • Is there such a thing as being too forgiving when mistakes have been made?

  • How can I best learn from mistakes I've made?

  • Which of my mistakes have turned out to be blessings in disguise?

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