Making Mistakes — The Power that Drives Us

As the adage goes, we learn from our mistakes. Does this really make us stronger?

I’ve been involved as an Advisor or Board member in a handful of companies since leaving PlateSpin and am regularly faced with the challenge of deciding whether or not to let someone make a mistake. I could chose to have someone learn a lesson the hard way or take on the struggle of trying to reason someone towards a better path (the right path in my esteemed view). As I find myself faced with this dilemma regularly in my current business, I am finding myself reviewing just how much finger burning someone should be allowed to go through before it becomes limb threatening for the business. What’s even harder to stand by and watch, is someone who should know better through their own past experiences that they are making a mistake — they are over their head, they have too much ego, are too stubborn, conceited, ignorant, etc to stop themselves regularly and explore the possible walls they are running into.

The interesting twist internally is that I have learned, through all of my mistakes, that few mistakes are truly business crippling. Although I have recently witnessed a 1000 paper cuts bleed a victim to submission resulting in a business garage sale, I have always found my way out of mistakes towards a path that recovers nicely. It does help to have a team supportive of direction changes, that trusted me as their leader, that was creative enough to help explore alternatives to solve today’s problems. I think where I am heading is that internalizing what you learn from mistakes is itself a rare skill — a lot of people think they learn from past actions but few seem to actually demonstrate it. I documented at most all of what I learned through my career (you’ll need an InsideSpin login to view the link) — it’s a great deal of varied experiences all of which helped direct the next things I undertook. It seems that until you have a sufficient critical mass of mistakes (and are still surviving!) the perspective needed on what was learned does not necessarily appear in the typical business person. It’s not clear how much time is needed (or how many mistakes to make) to reach a suitable critical mass to have some insight, but it may be helpful to at least encourage some introspection from time to time to figure that out.

One of my current businesses is mired under a leader who does not grasp the importance of communication. Another business is struggling under drip funding despite being at the right place at the right time with their market opportunity. A 3rd business is making a major pivot, dragging some of the key people along — hindering their progress. These are all typical issues that have accounted for far more business failures than ones that resulted in success. Why are these mistakes still happening in our business world — in Canada — what is the weak link that fails to pass on the knowledge correctly so the next wave of entrepreneurs can truly avoid the pitfalls us older ones came across?

Canada’s very own RIM may be at the head of the class for not learning from well understood mistakes.  Leading edge at the start, rapid growth, emerging markets, unique solution — at risk of throwing it all away through their inability to read the tea leaves that everyone else seems to have at the bottom of their cups. They need a new face on the business (CEO’s move aside), they need to explore adding some software solution value to their devices, to listen to customers and the market more, to communicate a vision — to change their basic business model from a hardware vendor to a solution vendor — LIKE EVERYONE ELSE learns when their market reaches the stage it did. Did they really think no one could compete with them — Apple knows someone will compete with them — is competing with them, constant innovation is very important. I’m sad for RIM — especially if we find ourselves putting them in the same bucket with NT down the road.

Anyway, making mistakes is a valuable learning tool — it would be nice to see some people highlight making truly new mistakes that all of us can learn from.

What are your thoughts? Please post a comment on this important topic.


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One Response to Making Mistakes — The Power that Drives Us

  1. Jason Dea says:

    Great post.

    From what I’ve seen one of the keys to success in tech (especially in smaller companies) is the ability to “fail fast” and iterate through multiple combinations of product/market/strategy to come to a winning formula. That process can be either organic (with burnt fingers as you say) or accelerated with the help of folks like yourself who can fast-track the retirement of certain combinations based on your prior experiences and instincts.

    Something about the Canadian psyche however seems to prevent us from really embracing that model. We’re a naturally risk averse culture, which really flies in the face of that “fail fast” mentality. Instead a lot of Canadians it seems tend to hang on to less than successful products or strategies rather than failing and moving on to the next innovation.

    Just my two cents. Interested in hearing the perspective of others.

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