What’s the Difference Between Mistakes and Failures

sinkFailure is not an option, is a phrase that we often hear, and it’s  phrase that can often be misinterpreted as mistakes are not an option.

If we take this interpretation then we will look to minimise risks, which will reduce the number of mistakes we make. But if we learn from our mistakes then we are taking away the opportunity to learn, which could impede our overall progress and our ability to achieve our full potential.

We need to clarify the difference between mistakes and failure.

In my definition a failure is when we give up, its when we quit, when we decide that we will not be successful and we stop all activities.

mistake 999Mistakes are those little stumbles along the way to success, we may fall, but we get up, we learn from that mistake and we continue to move forward.

We need to be sure that we communicate these definitions to our teams so that they know that mistakes are ok.

It doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to take crazy risks, but they know that we expect that if the fall they will get up, they can even ask for help to get up to get up, there will be no punishment, as we see mistakes as part of the learning and growing process.

When we do that it can liberate our teams, I have often seen that when teams are too cautious, too worried about making mistakes that its then that they make the mistakes. Whereas if they move forward with confidence, without fear, then they are much more relaxed and less likely to make mistakes.

If we do this we can also create a culture where mistakes are not hidden, which can often be the worst practise, because if we as leaders are not aware of some mistakes it makes it impossible for us to provide help.

We need to create a healthy environment, where people feel safe, and yet one where we can communicate that failure is not an option, and this doesn’t paralyse our teams with fear.

At one company where I worked we were looking to achieve a significant cost reduction $20m, and in our investigations we had found a significant number of Computer Servers which were running in the data centre, but didn’t seem to associated with any of the business systems. These were servers that had been acquired during several company mergers and no one was sure what they did.

So rather than turn them off and risk a business impact, it was just easier to leave them alone. No one wanted to be the cause of a business outage.

We had 450 of these suspect servers, which if removed, save us several million dollars were of operational cost, especially as we were still paying to lease some of them.

The data centre manager had a zero outage policy and everyone was fearful of making mistakes, so we had a situation where no one wanted to take that risk, in spite of a significant potential saving.

There was a lot of discussion (heated arguments), lots of proposals (threats) as to what might happen if there were issues, but these were all because people were afraid that we would fail.

As leader of the project I took my team and I told them to look to turn off 50 of these server per week, and if we had any issues we would just look to restart the server and keep the outage to the minimum, and most importantly that I would take responsibility for any outages.

I was pretty confident that nothing major would happen as our critical systems didn’t seem to be connected to any of these servers so any impact would be quite small, but you never know, but for me it was worth the risk.

By accepting the responsibility, I had  freed the teams to start to plan how we would decommission these servers, looking to minimise the risk, and having a recovery plan in case of mishap.

Interestingly, when we did our first batch of 50 server, there was a major outage on a critical business system and I did get a very strong call from the DataCenter Manager, but fortunately this had nothing to do with the servers we had disconnected, it was just a coincidence.

All in all we decommissioned 450 server, which saved the company close to $12m per annum, and during the process we only had 1 outage, and that was for a small system and the impact was negligible.

If we had not put ourselves in the position where we would accept that we could make a mistake, one that could pretty easily be resolved, then we would have failed.

We would have quit, stopped the project, and just left the 450 servers running, costing the company an unnecessary $12m per year.

By allowing the team the opportunity to take risks which could result in mistakes, but not failure, not only did we save the $12m by decommissioning the servers, but we also got lots of additional suggestions from the teams, some of which involved risks, small and large, and we were able to identify sufficient opportunities to help us achieve our overall saving target of $20m.

When we create an environment where teams understand the difference between mistakes and failures, we empower our teams and allow them to achieve their full potential.

If you’d like to know more about how to get your teams to achieve their full potential then email me at gordon@leadership-principles.com.

Gordon Tredgold

#Leadership Principles