Mistakes Matter, So Make More of Them

I’ve been doing a series of coaching calls with a wide range of successful people, to learn what’s holding them back in life. One of the most common fears: the fear of making mistakes. And it’s no wonder…

It’s election time. And political discussions tell us that anyone who makes a mistake should be shunned for life, barred from public office, and labeled a “flip-flopper” (especially if they change their mind as a result of learning from their mistake). Success literature, however, tells us that we should learn to be comfortable with failure and make mistakes! One of my most accomplished business school professors once said: if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. How about you? Do you know how to make the most of your mistakes?

If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.

Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Mean Mistakes

Our school system trains us for decades that not getting the right answer means we were wrongand somehow didn’t work hard enough. Once we get into the real world, we bring that mindset along with us. If we don’t get the results we want, we assume we made a mistake.

This isn’t necessarily so. Here’s a thought experiment to understand why. Imagine you have two quarters. One is perfectly fair. It has 50%/50% odds of flipping heads or tails. The other is weighted. It has a 60% chance of flipping heads.

We have two Coin Operators, whose job is to flip heads. They’re allowed to choose either coin to flip.

Peyton, Coin Operator #1, chooses to flip the 50/50 coin and gets HEADS.
Harley, Coin Operator #2 chooses to flip the 60/40 coin and gets TAILS.

Who made the mistake? If we look at the outcomes, it appears that Harley made the mistake. But before we know the outcome, we would favor Haley’s decision to choose the coin that is weighted towards heads. Haley pursued the outcome using the right process, even though it was the wrong outcome.

“Stuff” Happens

I hear you cry, “But Harley made the right choice! The outcome should have been heads!” I agree! We really want to believe that our actions will give us the results we want. The real world, however, is sadistic: sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. We have a name for this. We call this luck.[1]

We can do the right thing, have bad luck, and get the wrong outcome. We can do the wrong thing, have good luck, and get the outcome we want.

This gives us a critical insight into the nature of mistakes: it isn’t the outcome that lets us know we’ve made a mistake; it’s what we did to get the outcome, our process, that lets us know if we made a mistake.

We’re not taught to think this way. We’re not given societal support to think this way. We don’t evaluate our political candidates this way. We don’t evaluate our employees this way.

But if you want to train yourself to get what you want in life, don’t measure mistakes by outcomes. Burn these definitions into your brain:

  • Success is using a high-quality process, regardless of outcome.
  • Mistakes are using a low-quality process, regardless of outcome.

Other People May Not Suck as Much as We Think

Deep down inside, we all love judging other people, especially politicians. But this new definition of mistakes means we need to be careful. If we judge them based on outcomes, we might end up deciding that the Peytons of the world are amazing and awesome and worthy of backrubs, while the Harleys of the world should eat rocks.

Unfortunately, however, unless we’re paying attention during the entire effort, we rarely know what process someone used to reach their outcome. That makes it harder to judge them accurately.

I took a mediation class, where I had the joy of mediating a 10-party negotiation between the heads of several organizations. Each organization cared about different things, with different priorities. The real estate developers wanted more land. The conservationists wanted land made off-limits to developers. The Mayor cared about economic development and tourist trade. The historical society cared about limiting changes to any part of the city.

The final agreement satisfied no one, but at least everyone was equally dissatisfied. To each organization, the outcome surely looked like a failure. But the representatives reached the best agreement they could, given the conflicting interests, the time available, and the fledgling abilities of the mediator.

It’s easy to say “my [politician, boss, representative] failed by not getting outcome I wanted.” If we really want competent leaders, however, we do better to judge the process they use. Do they take steps to understand the issues? Do they understand whose support is needed and build the necessary coalitions? Do they compromise where needed, and hold firm where needed?

When evaluating others, don’t judge their success and failure from their outcomes. Look as closely as possible at their process.

Getting the Most Out of Your Mistakes

Although mistakes are a sign that you’re really moving, stretching, and growing yourself, that doesn’t mean you want to make the same ones over and over. You want to learn as much as you possibly can each time things don’t work out.

When a mistake happens, hold an After Action Review. Take time to reflect explicitly on what worked, what didn’t, and why. Consider what happened on the ground—what worked out the way you expected, and what didn’t. What happened that you didn’t plan for, and what didn’t happen that you did plan for? Also consider what happened in your head. How did your a priori beliefs factor into what happened? Were your interpretations of what was going on correct? Where did you waste time paying too much attention to trivialities, and where did you miss opportunity by not paying enough attention?

Making mistakes, combined with a good after action review, helps you refine several important aspects of your future thinking.

Mistakes Refine Cause/Effect Thinking

We all have theories about what causes what. Some of our theories are pretty good. We believe that watering a plant will help it grow. We water the plant. It grows. Our cause/effect works, we’re happy, and the plant is happy (maybe even ecstatic, depending on how long it’s been since you last watered it).

Some of our theories really don’t work at all. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” isn’t orthopedically sound advice. If you want to protect mom’s back, teaching her proper posture and good form when lifting heavy boxes is a far better plan.

And some of our theories about cause and effect are sort of true. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” certainly works great while we’re in school. But once we’re in the work world, the link between hard work and advancement is much more tenuous. In many cases, it doesn’t hold at all.

Avoidable mistakes often help us refine our notions of cause and effect. Many people believed that putting money into the stock market would result in a consistent, positive return on their money. In 2008, an entire generation discovered that cause/effect in stock investing is more subtle, and less dependable, than they thought. Next time a financial advisor happily informs them “invest in fund X and you’ll make 11% interest for 43 years,” they’ll (hopefully) know to refine their notion that giving money to a financial advisor automatically leads to a comfortable retirement.

Mistakes Refine Discrimination Abilities

We don’t just learn rules about cause and effect. We also learn how to discriminate between different situations. For example, with the label side down, a tube of toothpaste and a tube of athlete’s foot creme might look identical. One might simply look in the drawer, see a tube, squeeze it onto a toothbrush, and pop that brush right into their mouth and start brushing.

One might then discover one’s mistake. This will lead quickly to the learning that although tubes look the same face down, there are subtle clues as to which tube belongs in the mouth, and which tube belongs in the foot. For example, fine print on the back of the tube that says “for treatment of athlete’s foot and other topical fungal infections. Don’t eat it, you moron.”

That particular mistake is the one that got me to start paying close attention to the difference between tubes of cream.

Then there are my singing lessons, where my voice teacher forced me to listen to recordings of our lesson. When I was able to stop gritting my teeth, I began to develop the ability to distinguish between a tritone and a major fifth. It turns out that when you’re singing harmony, that distinction matters.

Mistakes help us refine the distinctions we make in the world.

Mistakes Refine Luck

And finally, mistakes help us understand the role of luck in what we’re trying to do. To return to our coin toss example, if we know Harley chose the 60/40 coin to flip, and it still came up tails, that tells us that luck played a factor in the outcome. While we would have prefered that Harley flip heads, we can be confident that the outcome of tails reflects luck, and not Harley’s abilities.

We might think mistakes are bad, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mistakes help us learn if we respond correctly. We should understand the roles luck and skill played in our outcome. Analyzing our process will tell us if we our good process gave a poor outcome, or whether we had a genuinely poor process. And we should refine our understanding of cause/effect, our discrimination abilities, and the role of luck. Our greatest advancement happens when we learn when things go wrong. To do anything else would be a mistake.


  1. If you’re a physicist, you call it a wave function. Or quantum mechanics. Or alternate universes, or something. But you’re not a physicist, so let’s stick with luck.  ↩

Time after Time: Put Your Decision-Making Time Horizon to Work

Put Your Decision-Making Time Horizon to Work

Think about the future. Notice what kind of events you expect to happen in the future. Think about the projects you have going on. Think about the good things you expect to happen, and how you plan for them.

You’ll notice that you have a preferred time horizon that you automatically use without thinking about it. For some people, considering “the long term” means thinking five months out. For other people, it means thinking ahead a hundred years… or a thousand years. I’m not talking about the time pressure from Wall Street or other managers; I’m talking about the mental timelines that all of us have, that we use to plan our lives.

Your Time Horizon Matters

The time horizon you use makes a huge difference in how you make decisions. If you naturally have a long time line, you may be able to create great long-term plans. You might not be so good at the short-term, however. Unfortunately, you have to pass through the short-term to get to the long-term, and if the short-term has some surprises, you can be caught unawares. I met a startup entrepreneur whose timeframe was years. He was mentally in a future where his company was already an industry leader. Unfortunately, he lived in that future and didn’t really pay much attention to the next six months. His company hit a few snags, and rather than focus in on the short term, he was so wedded to his long-term vision that he assumed “everything will work out.” It didn’t really penetrate that *he* was the one who had to make it work out.

A purely short-term time horizon is great for day-to-day survival. A short-term calendar has its own problems. It’s easy to make decisions that seem great in the short-term, but lead to long-term ruin. A friend of mine thought his decisions through about three weeks out from the present. Three weeks is less than a credit card statement cycle, however. Each month he would run up more and more credit card debt, because his decisions about “can I afford this?” never really considered the need to pay back the credit card, four weeks in the future. It took him 15 years to pay down the credit card debt he accumulated in college.

Use a Deliberate Time Horizon

Next time you make a decision—about work, or family, or home life—consciously consider the same decision and its consequences on a 2-week, 6-month, and 5-year time horizon. You may find that different decisions work best with different time scales. That’s a good thing! It lets you understand the interplay between short and long-term consequences.

My friend Michael Linenberger noticed that having a to-do list that’s so long your brain wants to explode also has a timeframe attached to it. Different items on your to-do list are associated with different time distances in the future. He’s designed a complete system to take advantage of how people think about time and activities to handle task management with no stress. His system meshes naturally with how people process near-future tasks differently from medium-future tasks, differently from far-future tasks. Today (immediate future), his book on the system is launching and I encourage you to check it out and buy a copy:
   http://masteryourworkday.com/

Next week (medium future), try his system for a week. Just do it for a week and find out whether taking timeframes into account improves your ability to juggle the demands of a task-heavy workload. Then in six months, if it’s still working for you, start asking where else in your life you can take timeframes into account, so you make better decisions and build your life into more of what you want it to be.

Good customer service requires substance and style

Good customer service requires more than just nice phone manners.

I had a customer service need today. I called the company, whom we’ll call Canadian Mozy, and got a very nice young man named “Johnny.” He seemed to have a genuine American accent, clearly understood my issue, and was able to respond in complete sentences. That’s a good first start. Sometimes, I call a company and someone with a thick foreign accent answers, introducing himself as “Biff Johnson.” That’s a bad sign, especially if you recognize the accent and know that folks in that culture rarely have names like Biff. When a company’s first instruction to their phone reps is, “lie about your name,” you know you’re in for a real treat.

A lot of companies know that having polite reps who tell the truth makes a good impression. Canadian Mozy certainly understood this.

Johnny listened to my problem and explained, “we used to do what you’re asking for. We see we’ve done it for you several times. But our new policy is that we won’t do it any more.” Interestingly, I was asking for something that had no business implications for Canadian Mozy. It did not require them to spend a penny on my request. It did not expose them to any additional risk, nor did it obligate them to anything in the future. It was free for them to provide, they’d provided it before, and some random mid-level pinheaded bureaucrat decided to retract the policy.

Politeness Wasn’t Enough

Did I get good service? Johnny provided extremely polite service. He was gracious and dealt with my hissing, booing, and making funny noises into the phone with professional aplomb. But he was powerless to fix the situation.

As a result, I’m pulling tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of business from Canadian Mozy and shifting it to other vendors. Though Canadian Mozy likes to trumpet themselves as a “partner” to the small businessperson, they aren’t. Their reps aren’t allowed to think for themselves, and the managers who set their policies don’t understand a whit about how to evaluate the actual business impact of a policy decision. They eliminated a policy that gave customers great value at no expense to themselves, and never thought about how customers might react.

This brings me to the much misunderstood truth about customer service:

  • Good customer service requires good style. Your customer support reps must speak the language of your callers, shouldn’t tell obvious lies, and should be polite, courteous, and trained to deal with irate, irrational customers.
  • Good customer service also requires good execution. Your customer support reps must have the training to investigate someone’s problem, and the ability to do something about it, especially when the request is one you’ve honored in the past and which has no downside for you but tremendous upside for your customer.

If you’re missing style or executions, customers get upset. In the language of kindergarten, good support comes down to this: be polite and keep your promises.

One Price Doesn't Fit All

But offering lots of options can destroy the buying experience.

I’m flying this morning. More accurately, I’m waiting in line after line after line at the airport. Once, I needed my boarding pass. Then I needed my boarding pass and driver’s license. Now, I need my credit card, too. Every line brings a new, extra charge. The check-in kiosk gleefully says it costs $15 for my first checked bag. At the gate, the little headphones cost me. On board, a pillow and blanket—once free free—now cost big bucks. And don’t get me started on the snacks.

Every price tag becomes a separate purchase decision. Every purchase decision makes an impression. The airline has me asking “Is this worth it?” a dozen times during a single flight. And every extra decision risks my deciding “No.”

Any good sales person knows you want your customers crying Yes, Yes, YES! As soon as I think No, they’ve lost me as a customer.

If you offer options, do it at once.

When you have lots of little add-ons that someone can choose up front, that’s fine. Call it “customization.” If I’m buying a new Mini Cooper, I get to run the Mini Cooper customizer. It becomes a game to choose the white racing stripes, chili pepper red paint job, fancy suspension, and cool hubcaps. Will I pay extra to customize? You bet. And since it’s a one-time fantasy fest, I only have to abandon common sense once to sign on the dotted line. Now I have my cool car with lots of options, and I love the chance to go into debt for life for my new tricked out Cooper. But only if it’s a single purchase decision, where the excitement happens all at once. One purchase, and I can enjoy my car forever.

Don’t take away what used to be free.

Of course, don’t customize add-ons that are expected as part of the base product. If I had to pay extra to make sure my Mini came with wheels, it would be annoying, not delightful. But since the car comes with wheels, all my attention is blissfully on my Speed Racer fantasies.

For Goodness’ sake, never start charging for something that used to be bundled into the price. People hate losing things. When once my plane pillow and blanket were complimentary, charging extra for them stirs resentment.

You might think airlines have to start charging for the extras or they’ll go out of business. Maybe. But maybe not. If they just tacked $50 onto the ticket prices and announced that they still give “free” blankets, pillows, and checked luggage, I suspect many people would be willing to purchase. All it takes is one nickel-and-dime experience to realize that a low price ticket might be a smokescreen for an expensive bundle of travel “add-ons.”

If airlines want to offer variable pricing, they shouldn’t charge extra fees. Instead, they could frame the choice as a discount: you get $7 off your ticket if you decline a pillow and blanket. More people would take the blanket and pillow (people often just accept the defaults), so the revenues would be higher. Yet those who really care can still get the lower price. Furthermore, people would be imagining their flight with all the goodies, and would be inclined to forgo the discount since it would seem like losing that amenity—and remember, people hate to lose extras.

How many purchase decisions do your customers make?

What’s your product or service? Do you offer it as a series of purchase decisions? Try an experiment: create an all-in-one pricing bundle and offer discounts for unused options, rather than extra charges for extra options. Track how many customers choose to the default options, how many customers purchase again, and how satisfied customers are with their purchase. You just may find that the best way to serve your customers is to charge them more.

[Note: the way decisions are presented to people makes a huge impact in what they choose. This is called “decision architecture.” You can learn all about decision architecture in the book “Nudge.”]

Cause and Effect in Current Events

Don’t be surprised when you get the expected result.

Stupidity is running rampant, world wide. It’s frustrating, because the mistakes aren’t rocket science. They’re really simple stuff. People forget their actions have consequences. Let’s explore some cause/effect you should keep in mind, through the lens of current events. Think how these apply to you, so you aren’t surprised by the utterly predictable.

(This is going to be a provocative article. If it offends you, recommend me to all your friends. The provocation may cause many unsubscribes from my list from people who would rather indulge in knee-jerk responses than think for themselves. Oops!! That sentence just lost a dozen, right there…)

Ignore the competition and you’ll lose. Detroit has been whining about how they couldn’t have forseen the current downturn. In business school in **1989**–twenty years ago–we did cases about how uncompetitive the car companies were, and how they were ignoring foreign competition, etc. Anyone who lived through the gas lines and 50+ mpg Honda Civics of the late 70s and hears Detroit complain that they can’t get 30mpg by 2020 should have nothing but utter contempt for the executives running the Big Three.

If you hit people, they won’t sit there and take it. Hello, Israel and Hamas. Are you listening? Kids beat me up in grammar school. It didn’t make me like them. And if I’d been bigger and stronger, I would have hit back. When Hamas broke a cease-fire and sent rockets into Israel, what did they expect to happen? It isn’t a matter of history, or who deserved what. Just that simple question: what did they expect to happen, other than violent retaliation? (Terrorists knocked down two of our office buildings seven years ago, and we started two wars over it, with a body count that some say is over 100,000 civilians. Clearly, if you swat someone who has more firepower, they just might swat back.)

Debt is bad if not managed wisely. Learn this: if you spend $10 today that you don’t have, how can you expect to have $12 to repay it with interest tomorrow? This only makes sense if you invest the $10 with the expectation of making $12 or more. Thinking of credit cards as free money is dumb. Thinking of a $1 trillion yearly budget deficit being used to fund expenses (e.g. war) rather than investment (e.g. R&D, research, education, infrastructure repair) is dumb.

Deliberate get-rich-quick stupidity will be appropriately rewarded. Banks have a thousand-year history of how to evaluate good credit risks. When they write mortgages to people they would never lend to under prudent guidelines, they shouldn’t be surprised when it all collapses. And by the way, every manager involved should be fired. I’d rather have a high school student running the bank than someone with proven bad experience.

Pay current expenses with current dollars. People get so upset and angry about tax levels. Get over it, people. Borrow-and-spend is _more_ toxic than tax-and-spend; you have to pay back with interest. Unless you are spending on investment that will generate a return, tax-and-spend is a much, much healthier policy. In any event, tax vs. borrow is just a financing detail. The problem is *spend*. (And anyone who still believes either party is more fiscally responsible than the other needs to have their head examined. As far as I can tell, the Repubs are abhorrently irresponsible, while the Dems are despicably irresponsible.)

Don’t borrow if you can’t repay. See the previous paragraph. This applies to credit card holders, home owners, governments, and investment banks. If you borrow $100, you have to pay back $110 next year, or even more in following years. Borrowing gives you the illusion that you have a higher standard of living than you can afford. The world will happily correct that misapprehension.

People do what you pay them for, especially if there are no perceived consequences. I’ll let you find the examples for this one. Just look at politicians, lobbyists, and CEOs of failed banks. (Why, please remind me, are any of those people still there? Aren’t we supposed to fire people who demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt their utter, complete, and total incompetence to run a solvent business?) This applies to politicians, too. If we connected their pay and career paths to desired national outcome measures, you would likely suddenly see a whole different set of conversations in Congress.

Does email overload help us?

Tim Sanders wrote a blog entry that references a Business Week article on information overload I commented on last week. The writer suggests that information overload might be good. There might be some valuable information, and besides, young people can handle it just fine.

Sure. In what universe? My Get-it-Done Guy podcast email and people’s reaction to my what is email costing you assessment, suggest many people of us feel our life force being regularly sucked from our bodies by information overload. It makes us jump from topic to topic. It interrupts us when we need to concentrate. And then we feel guilty that we still can’t keep up. Gee, that sounds like a resourceful emotional state for reaching our goals.

Yes, we’re getting more info. Yes, some of it’s useful. But that’s not the point! We need to ask: is it useful enough? Are the benefits—financial, social, or emotional—worth the cost?

For Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy (mentioned in the article), the answer is Yes. In email, they say things they would never say otherwise. Like that comment about the chocolate mousse, telephone pole, and garter belt. Who would ever say that out loud?

Of course, an anonymous suggestion box would fill the same function. Even better, the tipster could actually include the original garter belt. But apparently, those emails are amazing enough that Anne devotes a lot of time to her email. Since she’s gotten great results at Xerox, for her, the benefits might be worth the cost. (Assuming, of course, that her success is because of email, rather than in spite of it. Maybe a weekly suggestion box would be just as good.)

If you’re top dog, no one pays attention to how you use your time as long as you produce business results. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Our pointy-haired boss gives us specific goals, and email can suck up a lot of time without moving us towards our real goals. That “Top 10 Reasons Working Here Sucks” email will only help you reach your goal if that goal is a new job at your major competitor’s firm.

When you’re deciding how much time to spend with your inbox, think long and hard about the benefits you’re getting. After all, there’s lots you could be doing with that time. Ask yourself if there is any other way to get those same benefits? If you hired a $50/hour assistant to read and answer your email every day, what would you tell him/her to process versus ignore? Are you following those same guidelines?

Being perfect in every way, I follow my own advice and am ultra careful with my email habits. Even so, I often get sucked in for up to 30 extra minutes a day. Since I’m perfect, that must be the perfect amount of time to waste. But there’s still a nagging feeling: that comes out to three weeks per year. If I’m going to spend three weeks a year blathering mindlessly, I’d rather do it wearing a bathing suit on a sunny Caribbean beach than sitting hunched over my computer in my basement office, looking like one of the Mole People. At least on the beach, I might get a tan.

So don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Tim Sanders’s word for it. And don’t take Business Week’s word for it. Your email time is productive to the extent it helps you get what you want out of life. Hold it to a high standard and if it isn’t performing, drop it from your life faster than that stalker you accidentally dated in college. With email, only you can take control; there’s no way to get a restraining order.