When Mistakes Are Made, Let Us Eat Cake

By Ron van Haasteren

There was cake in the office, because there was a reason to celebrate. In fact, there are more than one reason for a party. A new, rather large, customer just signed a partnership agreement, which led to a long-term agreement.

Another reason to celebrate was that an award has been won.

Neither of those were the reasons for the cake. Instead of celebrating a couple moments of success, the cake served as a symbol of failure. This specific celebration was to honor the death of a project that failed and was killed.

While this might seem crazy at first, why not? Failure can be a positive thing, too. Especially when killing a project on time, before it drags on too long. In such cases, this can be positive for any organization to kill a project in time, before unnecessarily taking away too many resources and energy.

Today, innovation is required to survive. Innovation is experimentation.

During experiments you go by trial and error, meaning you’re bound to fail from time to time. When something fails, you learn, adjust and try again. This can only be done if you showcase those failures. Take a moment, communicate the failure and place an emphasis on the lessons learned. Learning from failure takes you a step further in the process.

And if you look at mistakes like that, it is a small victory. Looking at the theory of Teresa Amabile, celebrating small victories is good for the organization. That means that celebrating certain failure is crucial for long-term success. Acknowledging these small accomplishments activates the reward circuitry in our brains. It makes you a bit of an addict.

In theory, this approach seems logical, but in practice it is always a bit different. You need to possess a little bravery to openly admit to failure. You’ll also need interpersonal support. This shouldn’t affect your appraisal.

Likewise, a safe environment within the organization is crucial. Company culture plays a big role in creating such an environment. You need to trust on the fact that you can open up about failures without overwhelming or limiting consequences.

Currently, celebrating mistakes or pilots gone wrong are more often encouraged within our culture. This means that team members don’t hide mistakes, but instead share their learnings. At TOPdesk, we’ve been able to create a company culture that allows employees to feel safe enough to share their failures.

This stimulates an innovative environment, where people think out of the box and are able to experiment. When the experiment fails, kill the experiment immediately. Then, breakdown the experience, learning from it to share those lessons learned because it’s okay to make mistakes – as long as the mistake is learned from.

It’s not okay to make the same mistakes again, because then nobody took lessons from the first time the mistake was made.

Our approach of encouraging failures resembles the Just Culture a lot. This way of looking at mistakes originates from the air traffic control. More and more you see this way in organization where safety is of utmost importance, like healthcare.

This trending way of working is the opposite of the blame culture, but culture is never something you implement.

You don’t start with a consultant and six months later there is a new culture. To create a certain culture, you should focus on embedding personal relationships between all colleagues. Make sure people show interest in each other, that they hand out compliments, ask others for opinions and actually listen.

Such a practice is not something you can force, but it takes a lot of nudging people in the right direction.

Leading by example, then, is very important to stimulate certain behavior. Show to others that it is normal to share the mistakes made. Let them realize that the lessons learned are far more important than to keep it all hidden in a project that drags along.

Employees should know that mistakes are there to learn from and not reasons for punishment. In fact, it may be reason to eat cake.


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