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I Made a Mistake

| August 23, 2016

by Jim Bruce

So, what do I do now?

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes they are small and personal like forgetting to put the trash at the curb to be picked up.  Or, larger and embarrassing, like writing the amount differently in numbers and words on a check.  Or, sending a critical email to the wrong addressee.  Or, being the only one to show up for a meeting because you failed to send a notice of the meeting around to the expected attendees.  Or, you crash an application server because you didn’t stop and check the command before you entered it.  Or, you enter a network configuration change incorrectly and take down a major national system affecting large numbers of customers.
Mistakes happen.  Sometimes small, sometimes very large; sometimes private, sometimes very public.  In each instance, we must ask the question “What do I do now?”  And, as much as we might prefer to run and hide, we know that’s neither wise nor even possible in most cases, even when the mistake is small and personal.  So, we have to set aside any feelings of being ashamed, feeling guilty, and being angry at ourselves and address the issue.
So, what do you do?  Fundamentally, you need to acknowledge the mistake, apologize for it, and fix it.  It is perhaps helpful to think about this in terms of six processes that often will need to run concurrently:
1.  Acknowledge and own – Whether it’s small or large, a missed appointment because it didn’t make it’s way to your calendar, a meeting when the guest you had agreed to invite doesn’t show up because you forgot to invite her, or a major system becomes unavailable because you entered the wrong command, you need to first acknowledge and own what you did.  No excuses.  No need to say, I was busy and forgot or I didn’t check the command.  You inform those who are or need to be involved, apologize, and set out to remediate the problem as rapidly as possible.
But first, in order to take these next steps effectively, you have to do something that is difficult for many of us.  You have to forgive yourself for making the mistake and put aside all the self-talk that may be screaming in your brain about how dumb and stupid you are because of what you did.  You won’t really be able to perform at the level you need to without doing this.
As Dorie Clark reminds us in her Harvard Business Review essay, “Unfortunately, making bad decisions are a part of life:  No one has a 100% success rate.  Even so, it’s challenging to admit our mistakes, in a culture that still often hides them.  But when you do, and you work to remedy them quickly and honestly, it can mitigate the initial problem and earn the lasting respect of your peers.”
2.  Apologize – Apologies need to be made quickly and must be specific and real, not something lame and self-protective.  “I’m sorry, but I didn’t invite the guest speaker I committed to invite.  It is my bad.  Can we reschedule when I find she is available?”  In 2011 Amazon had a major system failure affecting many clients across the country.  It wrote this apology in its incident note to its customers: 
“We want to apologize.  We know how critical our services are to our customer’s business and we will do everything we can to learn from this event and use it to drive improvement across our services.  As with any significant operational issue, we will spend many hours over the coming days and weeks improving our understanding of the details of the various parts of this event and determining how to make changes to improve our services and processes.”
3.  Fix – From the client’s perspective, the most immediate thing to be done is to resolve the issue.  Get the meeting on the calendar or restore their system so that work can resume.  Make fixing your mistake a very high priority and allocate the necessary resources.
4.  Understand – Don’t just fix what was broken.  Take the time and work to understand what contributed to the situation.  Look for root causes.  What steps might you take to keep the mistake from happening again?  What can you do differently?  Take the time to really understand what went wrong.  Were you careless in thinking that you’d remember the details at a later date?  Were you over-confident in setting an optimistic delivery schedule?  Did more redundancy need to be build-in to the system?  Etc.  These are all learnings that should come from a carefully performed, rigorous After Action Review.
5.  Improve – And, go beyond just understanding what happened to ask, how might I change the system so as to better serve my clients in the future?  It is not enough to restore a process or system to its previous state when that system was marginal.  Do what needs to be done to make the restored system robust.
6.  Communicate – In many instances, we’d like to sweep our mistakes under the rug and pretend that they never happened.  However, there is value and power in taking responsibility;  the mistakes we make often have unexpected consequences.  In an HBS article, “Lessons on Toyota’s Long Drive,” a former Toyota chairman, Katsuaki Watanabe, is quoted as saying:  “Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually.  If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured.  Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn’t notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.”
In some environments, sharing information about your mistakes can be a lifesaver.  In her research on learning in hospitals, Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School faculty member, discovered that the highest-performing nursing units reported the largest number of mistakes.  This wasn’t because they made more mistakes, but because they felt safe to report and share the ones they did make.  In fact, it became the norm.
Bad decisions and mistakes are part of life.  No one has a 100% success rate in this area.  And, even though we all make them it is exceedingly difficult to acknowledge them.  And, this is particularly difficult in our risk-adverse culture, which too often hides its mistakes.  We don’t want to be embarrassed or, in the corporate world, we don’t want to be sued.  Yet when you do step forward and admit your mistakes, and work quickly and honestly to remedy them, it can earn you lasting respect from clients and peers.
So, when you make your next mistake, and you will, take care in how you respond!
Make this week a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
John Caddell, How To Bounce Back From A Big Mistake, 99U
Dorie Clark, What to Do When You’ve Made a Bad Decision, Harvard Business Review, August 2016.
Summary of Amazon EC2 and Amazon RDS Service Disruption in the US East Region, April 2011.