Some self-aware managers are trying out “mistake diaries” or “failure reports” to help minimize the chances that a problem happens twice – and to help foster an environment where it’s OK to try and fail.
For more than six years, Elaine Wherry, 35, the co-founder of chat site Meebo (acquired by Google last summer) carefully jotted down nearly every mistake she made as an employee and manager. Wherrydescribed her experience as a chronicler of error during the SXSW Interactive conference earlier this month.
Using a series of sketchbooks, she started taking notes and making drawings to record her mistakes – such as time-management problems and hyper-perfectionism — as a personal way to remember them. “I wanted to be able to reflect on them later, so I wouldn’t beat myself up during the week,” she says. “It was a way to get more sleep.”
But as Wherry began hiring more employees, many straight out of college and new to the workforce, she started seeing them repeat mistakes she had made. So she compiled a list of her most common blunders and shared it with her employees. Among the problems: sending email to avoid face-to-face contact and bringing up big ideas during crunch times when colleagues aren’t in a position to process them.
As Wherry matured into her role, she continued to document management problems at each level of the organization, accompanied by whimsical drawings to emphasize her points. Among the top manager mistakes she observed (and made herself): trying to be friends with employees and running meetings as democracies, rather than in a more centralized fashion.
Employees are human, however, and broadcasting mistakes doesn’t mean that people can always avoid making them.
“Everyone has to go through the same rites of passage,” says Wherry. But being aware that mistakes were likely to happen helped her colleagues “recover more quickly,” she says.
Meanwhile, consultant Ashley Good has helped the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders create a series of “failure reports” in which the group carefully wrote down what didn’t work in its international development work. She now consults with othernonprofits and companies on how to create organizational cultures that support risk-taking and the admission of failure.
Managers must take the first step by admitting their own mistakes without blaming others, says Good.
“If you are not admitting failure, you are either not being honest or not being innovative.”