One morning, a smart teacher at Applewild School in Fitchburg, Mass., spied a golden beach ball left by kids in a field near his home. The shiny globe fired up the little boy inside him and he decided to give it a good swift kick. With glee he ran up and launched into it – shattering his foot as he made contact with a painted bowling ball.
Mistakes. Blunders. Errors. Fumbles. Glitches. They are an essential part of the human experience.
I thought of that story – one recounted each year when an Applewild teacher was given that year’s “Golden Toe” Award – the other day when I walked past a shiny blue beach ball left near my home. My inner boy told me to kick it right away, which of course I did – but only after carefully checking to make sure it was indeed made of rubber.
That kick spurred me to think about how healthy organizations and their leaders approach the all-too-common experience of making missteps of their own. Based on my experience, there are three general guidelines the best leaders and organizations follow when it comes to human error. Every CEO would be wise to pay heed.
Check for errors
My great uncle the carpenter nailed the first guideline long ago, when he told me one should “measure twice, cut once” whenever approaching a two-by-four with a saw. From professional firefighters who test and retest emergency equipment between runs to computer-based war games in the U.S. military, well-led organizations develop and support a culture of independently checking for errors before executing plans. A mistake prevented is a thing of beauty.
Learn from others’ mistakes
One of the best ways to prevent errors is to learn from others’ mistakes, our second guideline. I pay a lot of attention to challenges and missteps that litter the news, just as a scientist reads a professional journal describing the latest research conducted by others in the same field. Organizations making their way through rough waters are like giant experiments in a global laboratory.
The ferry sinking in South Korea in April was a case in point. From beginning to end, the company and government appeared slow – first to try to save any survivors and then to provide information to the grieving families. They only seemed quick when it came to keeping pesky reporters away and focusing as much blame as possible on the hapless captain.
Beyond a human tragedy and public relations disaster, the botched response ended up costing the entire economy, as the Associated Press recently reported: “Earlier this month, the [central] bank reduced its forecast for economic growth this year to 3.8 percent from 4.0 percent, citing a deadly ferry sinking in the spring that dented consumption.” I will no doubt bring up the ferry story the next time I work with a corporate leader facing a crisis.
Own the mistake
Of course even the wisest CEO can’t prevent every error, which brings us to our final guideline. When a mistake hits your company (and it will), own it as a team. Maybe one person took that final step that led to the act that blew up in his or her face, but experience teaches us that a whole chain of events put that person in a position to err.
Healthy organizations – those run by high caliber leaders – take this broad view of mistakes. They own the accident rather than scapegoat one individual actor. They take responsibility for negative consequences, make amends to anyone harmed and spend the time and effort needed to limit the chances of future errors.
This approach happens to be the best public relations strategy as well, because it keeps actions in line with ideals. Winning CEOs also don’t let mistakes prevent them from being positive and encouraging bold action by the leaders who work for them.
I thought of this after the tragic shoot-down of Malaysian Airline Flight MH17. While politicians and pundits discussed who shot the plane down and why, professional aviation safety pros were no doubt already looking at the entire chain of decision making that put a slow-moving airliner over a war zone. We won’t necessarily hear about them, but there will no doubt be changes to how such decisions are made in the future.
It must have really hurt when that teacher kicked the bowling ball that otherwise peaceful morning. And it was no doubt embarrassing to be reminded of his faux pas (literally) every year. But by memorializing that event with its annual award, the school was helping ensure that the central lesson of that painful experience was not lost on its students. “This can happen to you,” the school was telling us, “so make sure you check that ball before you think it’s safe to kick it.”
Only a fool would ignore that lesson.