Who makes Mistakes?

3 Jul

Everyone makes mistakes, but that’s an easy answer so I’ll make it more interesting. Everyone makes mistakes but the cultural and psychological attitude to mistakes decide whether they turn out to be a positive or negative experience. For example, athletes, particularly combat athletes, always talk of “how you learn more from a loss than a win”. And clearly you can, but back in the general population most people, and certainly most organisations, are obsessive about removing mistakes altogether and not practised at turning these mistakes into positives. In this article I’ll discuss the role of mistakes as a positive resource.

I was delighted to see that Gary Klein’s (2014) new book on insight had a focus on mistakes. In it Klein presents a slide:-on the slide are two objectives 1) Reduce mistakes 2) Increase insight. The argument is made that a focus on reducing mistakes (at all costs) detracts from the ability to gain insight. In other words, experimentation is discouraged for fear of failure and messing up the error reduction statistics.

This needs to be placed in context- no one on an operating table wants to think the surgeon could suddenly feel inspired to test (because they feel like it) a flash of inspiration, a mistake in this context would be grossly negligent. However, when plan A has hit its limit some inspiration and innovative thinking can save lives-this is problem solving under extreme pressure and mistakes have to risked. Mistakes are a source of learning and they are also inevitable, so it makes sense to embrace them positively.

I remember when I spent some time with an armed response unit exploring the decision making process. One thing really interested me, there seemed to be two types of officer- those who “systemised” the job and those who “empathised” the job. Baron Cohen (Billington et al, 2007) originated the systemising-empathising theory and I’m drawing from it here in a general sense, but the categories help to explain my observations. The officers who systemised their role were focused on the process of decision making; the officers who were “empathising” were focused more on the context. So, what does this mean for learning from mistakes?

Paying attention to the context, as oppose to only the process, tends to broaden the frame of reference. It makes you more situationally aware (Endsley, 1995); noticing the subtle cues and patterns in the environment and how these could be leveraged to better achieve goals, in other words, more open to insight. Focusing only on the process tends to produce a linear type of thinking, one concentrated on error reduction. To get the most out of mistakes you need some process (vital) but a focus should be placed on the context. This encourages exploration, some will lead down a dead end or go wrong (mistakes) but the lessons will still be valuable and can serve to improve the processes. The key is to keep this experimentation safe, contained within a controlled risk environment.

Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Public Affairs
Billington, J, Baron-Cohen, S, & Wheelwright, S, (2007) Cognitive style predicts entry into physical sciences and humanities: Questionnaire and performance tests of empathy and systemizing. Learning and Individual Differences, 17, 260-268
Endsley, M.R. (1995a). Measurement of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors, 37(1), 65–84

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