5 Vital Truths About Business Mistakes

(Note: I posted this last Thursday on American Express OPEN Forum. I’m reposting here.)

I’m not a baseball fan and I try to avoid sports metaphors, but there are some things I love about baseball that I treasure for their relevance in entrepreneurship and business management.

Baseball doesn’t pretend perfection. Pitchers get to miss their target three times free for every batter. Batters get to miss the target two times free. The best batter in history hit just a bit over .400, meaning six outs per every 10 times at bat. Anybody who batter better than .300 (three hits out of ten at bats) is highly regarded, if not a star. And people make errors on defense — and they call them errors, record them, and keep stats on them.

Small business owners should have it so good.

I’ve been running my own business for several decades now, which is long enough, I have to admit, to learn to live with mistakes. So now I want to give back, a bit, and share these five vital truths about mistakes:

1. You make mistakes

What worries me most about how much we all make mistakes is the whole mystique about excellence that leads to denial and distortions. I think of the song by Shaggy, ‘It Wasn’t Me.’ Reflect on your own work: do you make mistakes? If you don’t answer that with an immediate ‘Yes,’ then you’re in danger of being one of those delusional managers who blames others.

Don’t kid yourself. The longer you survive in business, the more mistakes you’ll make. It comes with the territory. Like in baseball, if you get up to bat you’re going to make those outs. If you’re the pitcher, you’re going to throw some pitches that weren’t strikes. And out on the field, you’re going to make some errors. You have to recognize it to deal with it.

If you’ve been at business for a while, then anybody close to you — like friends and family and especially team members in the business — can quickly point to a mistake you’ve made to fit any context. Be aware that it’s true for anybody in your position. Remind them, if you feel it’s appropriate, that you’re in the business of making mistakes, and if it weren’t for what you’ve done right, you wouldn’t still be in the game.

2. Accepting mistakes is good, but analyzing them is better

Much as I admire the general principles of Zen (as I understand them), just accepting the fact that you’re making all those mistakes isn’t good enough. Grab them, bring them into your head, and twist them around a bit to see what they can teach you about yourself, your business, and people in general. Keep an inventory of mistakes you can use to apply to future problems. They’re food for thought, eye openers, and reminders. Don’t forget them. Analyze them. Understand them.

It’s about vision. Humility does a lot more for business vision than corrective lenses.

Some people say amnesia is good for thinking and process and mental health; I disagree. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up over them. But keep them close enough to help with the future.

3. Beware of the quicksand mistakes

I’ve written about quicksand problems before. Life is full of them, which means business is full of them, too. When you’re trapped in quicksand, struggling makes it worse (or so I’m told; I haven’t had the experience). The quicker you struggle, the faster you sink. You relax and accept your fate and you’ll last longer, and maybe get rescued.

Some kinds of mistakes are quicksand problems: if you acknowledge them and change direction, you’re way better off than if you try to fix them or hide them. Call out the mistake, file it, analyze it, and use it. Don’t pretend you didn’t make it.

4. Understand uncertainty

We need to remind each other that we walk a perpetual treadmill of uncertainty. We never once make a decision knowing the future, but we are all the time discovering we guessed wrong, in the past, about what was going to be happening in the future. You have to always keep in mind that when you made that mistake you didn’t know what was going to happen. You were guessing, then, about what you know now. Ease up on yourself.

5. Mismanaged mistakes are team killers

Those of us in command must always remember that our people make mistakes, too, just like we do. Leadership and management come together on this point. When you give a task to somebody on your team you have to recognize that they make mistakes just like you do. You have to help them deal with mistakes, leading by example, and collaborating. You can’t pretending these mistakes didn’t happen. But you can’t grind people’s faces into them either.

Think of this concrete example: You want somebody to reserve hotels for your business travel. You don’t like the hotel they reserved. What, and how, do you tell them so that they reserve you one you like better next time? If you do this one wrong, they’ll never reserve a hotel for you again without giving you so much information and making you make so many choices that it would be easier to just do it yourself. When that happens, it’s not their fault, it’s yours; it’s your reaction to some past mistake.

(Image credit: DeepspaceDave/Shutterstock)

4 thoughts on “5 Vital Truths About Business Mistakes

  1. This brings to mind the case of Benjamin Franklin when creating the light bulb, or maybe a more modern case such as FedEx… Receiving a failing grade on a paper in college outlining the future venture of FedEx could have been seen as a mistake, but he rebounded, learned, and created a well known shipping company.

  2. The Zen/Buddhist approach, as far as I understand, uses a slightly different idea of the word “acceptance.” Part of accepting a thing is understanding it, or as you put it analyzing it.

    You definitely hit the nail on the head though with that entry, I just thought I’d weigh in on that point.

    This is a great article though, definitely a lot of points to keep in mind, and they’re applicable beyond just the scope of business.

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