Dealing with mistakes in a safe environment

There is an anecdote story involving the two jazz legends, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

In this story Herbie Hancock recalls an event that took place when he was performing together with Miles Davis. The event took place in the 60’s in Stuttgart, Germany. Herbie Hancock recalls that while playing his part, he accidentally played the wrong notes. As a result of these notes, the music sounded to him like a big mistake. He recalls that Miles Davis paused for a second and quickly improvised. With his unique talent, Miles found some notes that made out of Herbie’s mistake, a correct musical composition.

Herbie Hancock, much later realized that the wrong notes that he accidentally played, where not a mistake in the mind of Miles Davis. He realized, that Miles Davis considered them as an event that he had to deal with and that he saw it as his responsibility to find the fitting notes.

Safe Environment

One important responsibility of leaders, is to create a safe environment for employees to be able to experiment without being afraid to make mistakes or being afraid to deal with the consequences of their mistakes.

A safe environment besides being a matter of culture, it is crucial for motivating employees and also relevant in the context of the “fail fast, early and often” agile principle. However, cultivating a safe environment, does not mean that mistakes are simply ignored and swept under the rug. It is important to promote a culture where individuals and teams feel the responsibility to deal with mistakes in a constructive and positive way. This applies, not only in the case where the mistakes are created by our own actions or by someone from our team. It also applies in the case where we inherit or are confronted with a situation resulting from the actions made by third parties.

Behaviors and attitude to promote

To establish a safe environment, when dealing with mistakes, there are certain behaviors and attitudes that should be promoted and other that should be avoided. Here are some of these behaviors and attitudes:

– Don’t blame or point the finger at others
– Don’t punish people
– Avoid characterizations and negatively charged expression’s that create tension (e.g “right”, “wrong”, “mistake”, “error”, “fault”, “blame”, “failure”, “trouble” etc)
– Give constructive feedback (past) and feed-forward (future)
– Empathize with the person(s) responsible for the situation
– Don’t disrespect, insult or contempt the person(s) responsible for the situation
– Focus on how to deal with the implications, instead of who and why
– Don’t hide something, hoping that no one will find it. Be open and transparent about it
– Be transparent and open about the actions that caused the situation
– Try to understand the reasons that led to these actions
– Deal with the implications and find a way to reverse, reduce or accept them
– Understand that as soon as there are implications for you, it is your responsibility to deal with them, independently of who caused the situation
– Seek for help and guidance from your peers or your leaders
– Consider the events as an opportunity to learn and improve
– Assess the impact and the likelihood of the mistake happening again and develop a strategy to deal with the re-occurrence of the mistake (avoid, control, accept, or transfer)

The list is not to be considered as complete, it’s intent is to give direction and guidance.