Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mistake Bank Photo Gallery: "In This House We Do Mistakes""

A cool sign that reflects some of our thinking on this site. It may be one that was for sale on Etsy, but isn't any longer. There are many different styles of signs/stickers with the same message.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Steven Johnson: "We have a tendency to dismiss error" when we shouldn't

This is from Steven Johnson's great book "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation." There is a chapter entitled "Error" and describes/reinforces many of the points we've illustrated on this site. I highly recommend the book.

The trouble with error is that we have the tendency to dismiss it. When Kevin Dunbar analyzed the data from his in vivo studies of microbiology labs, one of his most remarkable findings was just how many experiments produced results that were generally unexpected. More than half the data collected by the researchers deviated significantly from what they had predicted they would find. Dunbar found that the scientists tended to treat these surprising outcomes as the result of flaws in their experimental method: some kind of contamination of the original tissue perhaps, or a mechanical malfunction, or an error at the data-processing phase. They assumed the result was noise, not signal. [Kindle location 1658]

In other words, many projects don't deliver the expected results; i.e., they are mistakes. And yet a lot of good comes from this. Johnson writes that there is much more "signal" in these mistakes than we expect, and we tend to overlook them or attribute them to our own errors, not some other factors that may be meaningful. This is yet another reason to revisit mistakes for learning. Yes, you will find things you did wrong, but you may also discover something entirely new.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Wrong thinking" is a key part of imagination

From Good Magazine's article, "Learning to 'Think Wrong' Could Be the Key to the Right Answers":

We’ve all been in group brainstorm sessions where everyone is shouting out ideas but none of them really solve the problem at hand. It sounds counterintuitive, but social designer Marc O'Brien says trying to come up with right answers shuts down our creativity. The key to generating truly innovative ideas, he says, is learning how to challenge the status quo—which is why he's busy trying to teach people how to "think wrong"

People "need to keep their imagination alive and not feel like they need to be right all the time," says O'Brien, who facilitates a workshop series called "How to Think Wrong." That's difficult because by the time we're adults, we're afraid of failure. People tend to do things—including thinking of ideas—the same way over and over again because it feels safe. Yet working within our comfort zone renders us unable to approach problems with a truly fresh perspective....

"If students learned from the time they entered elementary school that it's ok to make mistakes and take what works and build off of that and continue to be curious," he says, they'd never lose their imagination.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Looking for an illustration/design collaborator

UPDATE: 15 July
I have found a collaborator. Thanks for the interest and I will keep people apprised of the book's progress.

I am looking for a collaborator to help design/illustrate a book adapted from The Mistake Bank. I've got some ideas for a cool, interesting, fun book.

I would plan to share revenues with the collaborator. If you are interested and would like to learn more, please email me at mistakebank (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com.

Please pass this along to anyone you think might be a good match! Thanks, John

Friday, June 22, 2012

SoundCloud founder Eric Wahlforss: "Be Even Bolder"

From an interview in The 99 Percent with Eric Wahlforss, co-founder and CTO of social audio service SoundCloud:

What's the one piece of advice you know now you would have given to your younger self when first starting out SoundCloud?

Be even bolder than we have been. Looking back, we could have moved even faster in pursuing our vision, but I think we're finally up to speed now. Then again, it's really easy to say things like that in hindsight.

[Disclosure: I write occasional articles for The 99 Percent]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Carol Dweck - fixed mindsetters take outsized risks

Carol Dweck is one of the thinkers that continues to inspire me. Her insights on learning (in her words, between people with fixed mindsets and growth mindsets) sheds light on how some of us refuse to learn from mistakes, and how others absorb the lessons and succeed all the more. [This is a marvelous graphic illustrating the two mindsets.]

Her recent post on, "Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Appetite for Risk," discusses how the trap of the fixed mindset, in which talents are perceived to be innate, not developed, can lead people to overestimate their abilities and desire to show off - a cocktail for risky behavior.

The piece also had a quote that got my mind working:

In another study with David Nussbaum, students at a top university were told they had done poorly on a test of their abilities, and were then offered the chance to see and learn from the strategies used by people who had taken the test before them. What did they do? Those with a growth mindset chose to look at the strategies of people who had done far better than they had — they wanted to improve. But those with a fixed mindset chose to look at the strategies of people who had done worse than they had. Why? They wanted to feel superior. And after doing so, they reported that they, indeed, now had a high opinion of their abilities. People with a fixed mindset ignore the warning signs.

This reminded me of a story from a time when I certainly had a very fixed mindset - in college.

As a senior, I had reserved one of my two pass-fail classes for my final semester. I chose Drawing I. It seemed like a change of pace from my engineering curriculum, and a friend was taking it too. Why not? I thought.

I was convinced that I sucked at drawing. And my first drawings lived down to that self-image. So I developed a strategy. (Which wasn't to try hard to improve my craft.) Each time we had completed a drawing or sketch, we hung it on the wall and the professor would critique them. I learned very quickly to hang back while everyone posted their drawings. Then I would find the poorest drawing of all, and hang mine next to it.

This strategy had the desired effect: the teacher's critiques were more muted than they would have been if my drawing had been in the company of better ones.

I didn't improve much over the course of the semester - though I did pass. And years later, I regretted not taking more advantage of that opportunity to practice and learn to draw better. But, of course, that was when I had seen the advantage of the growth mindset.

[If you want to see my drawing skills in action, here you are:]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Paul Downs: you can't push workers for output and ask them to train at the same time

More from furniture maker Paul Downs, via the New York Times You're The Boss blog. This post resulted from his post on his reasons for and approach to firing people, and discusses mistakes he made during the economic downturn of the late '00's. Four years on, he has absorbed some pretty clear lessons from that time:

I’d like to address commenters who questioned my failure to train workers whom I had hired in the years before the crash in 2008. For instance, this comment:

Why would you fail to train people? Why would you not explain to the more experienced workers that training was worth more long term than output?

That’s a good question. And if, at that time, I had been able to focus on the long-term good of the company, I probably would have done things differently. However, that’s not where we were at that time.

We were hiring as fast as we could to complete some very large projects. At the same time, we were losing money hand over fist. The best way for us to raise cash was to complete the jobs we were working on. At that moment, output was much more important than training. I was putting a lot of pressure on my cadre of experienced workers to get jobs out the door — and at the same time dumping a crew of inexperienced warm bodies on them.

I told the old heads to train the new people, but I didn’t relieve anyone of their production responsibilities. And I didn’t put a single person in charge of training. Frankly, I was stupid, and I was setting up all of us for failure. Even at the time, I knew it wasn’t working, but I just couldn’t figure out what to do. It’s a lot easier to say “train people” than to think of actual ways to do it.

This article I wrote for The 99 Percent discusses the need for time to pass to draw deep lessons from mistakes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paul Downs: if you don't understand why a boss wouldn't give up, don't start your own company

From the New York Times You're The Boss blog. Paul Downs, a regular contributor, owns a furniture-making shop in Philadelphia. This exchange resulted from his post on his reasons for and approach to firing people.

Comment: If Mr. Downs’ company ran out of money in 2008, doesn’t that say something about HIS performance? Why didn’t he fire himself then?

Downs's response: Yes, it does say something about my performance, and it also says something about the economy in 2008. My mistakes cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. As for why I didn’t quit, well, if you don’t understand, then I would suggest that you never try to start your own company.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Funny Friday story - Bank of America pays property tax erroneously, requests twice the amount back

This story was reported in the Times of Northwest Indiana by Phil Wieland.

Make no mistake. Bank of America Corp. doesn't make mistakes like the mistake it made with Valparaiso Councilman John Bowker's property taxes.

At the end of 2010, Bowker got a check for $612.66 from the Porter County treasurer's office with a note saying it was for the overpayment of his property taxes by BAC. This came as a surprise to Bowker, whose mortgage is with Centier Bank.

Although a Red Sox fan, Bowker is smart enough to know BAC would eventually come looking for that money. So he put it in the bank and waited. And waited. Finally, in April, after he'd earned several cents in interest, the much-anticipated letter arrived.

In it, BAC said Bowker must repay $1,316.02, which would have been the total for the final 2010 tax payment and the first one in 2011. This was another surprise because the county had no record that anyone other than Centier paid his property taxes in 2011.

Bowker tried several times to reach someone with BAC before finally getting a response from a person who assured him BAC didn't make such mistakes. When he told BAC he would not pay more than the $612.66 unless they provided proof he owed it, BAC said it would have to verify the figure with the county.

A week later he had no return contact from BAC, but he got a second BAC letter saying he hadn't responded to the first letter and he should send the check for $1,316.02 forthwith. That was about the point where Bowker decided I might like to hear the story.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake"

From the Valve Corporation company handbook. Valve is a creator of video games, including Half-Life, and the Steam video game platform.

What if I screw up?

Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company—we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.

Screwing up is a great way to find out that your assumptions were wrong or that your model of the world was a
little bit off. As long as you update your model and move forward with a better picture, you’re doing it right. Look for ways to test your beliefs. Never be afraid to run an experiment or to collect more data.

It helps to make predictions and anticipate nasty outcomes. Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m right?” Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m wrong?” Then ask yourself “what do I see?” If something
totally unexpected happens, try to figure out why.

There are still some bad ways to fail. Repeating the same mistake over and over is one. Not listening to customers or peers before or after a failure is another. Never ignore the evidence; particularly when it says you’re wrong.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sometimes there's no time to process a failure before you have to act

We mentioned last week that learning from your mistakes takes time - time to process the complex emotional reactions people have to the failure of a project or initiative.

But what if you don't have time?

Imagine that you are Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, lauded as the most hands-on manager and best risk management CEO in the financial services industry. You've just learned that a series of trades from your "London Whale" have gone bad, very bad, and you will need to write down more than $2 billion. What do you do?

This is no ordinary mistake. This is a crisis. A leader such as Dimon has no choice but to do what University of Indiana professor Dean Shepherd, in his book "From Lemons to Lemonade: Squeeze Every Last Drop of Success Out of Your Mistakes" calls "working through the loss." He must very quickly get the facts, make decisions, provide information to the public, and maintain morale among the company's employees.

This Wall Street Journal article highlights Dimon's activities over a 45-day period, starting in early April 2012 when the first signs of a problem began to emerge into public view until the first week after the full-blown crisis began. The article paints a picture of a conflicted but ultimately resolute leader determined to guide the company through the crisis, and mindful of his own culpability.

Dimon certainly deserves much criticism for the predicament JP Morgan finds itself in. But his behavior in quickly assessing and acting on the problem has allowed him to weather the storm. Repairing the damage to the company will take years, but the crisis has been averted.

He will need to find some time on his own, this year or sometime down the line, to process his own role in the crisis and fully learn from it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Doug Rauch of Trader Joe's: 1 in 100 new products becoming "big successes" is a good performance

In this HBR video, Doug Rauch, former president of the Trader Joe's grocery chain, describes the need to fail often in order to create "exciting, adventuresome products."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Vijay Govindarajan on how to learn through failing cheaply & quickly

This brief video from Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School at Dartmouth University illustrates a simple method for creating an effective innovation experiment. His recommendation: "Test your most critical unknowns as early and as inexpensively as possible."

This has some resonance with the "Smart Mistakes" article I recently posted on The 99 Percent.

Govindarajan is the co-author of "Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere." We posted on that book earlier.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Learning from mistakes requires getting past your emotions

In his book "From Lemons to Lemonade: Squeeze Every Last Drop of Success Out of Your Mistakes," Indiana University professor Dean Shepherd discusses the need to separate actions from emotions to get the most learning from mistakes and failure. In this excerpt, Shepherd writes:

By recognizing that failure can trigger a negative emotional reaction, we realize that learning from failure requires time. It also requires a process of dealing with the emotions generated by failure to learn from the experience. That process, once learned, can become one of your strengths instead of a weakness. It can be a very positive force in your life.

I agree completely. And depending on the magnitude of the failure, that time will be shorter or longer. As I journal mistakes, I can usually come to grips with the trivial ones within a week (the journal is very important for keeping record of these). Deeper ones, such as an unexpected reversal with a sales prospect, take longer - a quarter to a year. And lessons from major setbacks, such as the failure of Shepherd's father-in-law's business (related in the excerpt), take years to absorb.

In the moment, when we realize something has gone wrong, we automatically self-protect - by blaming others, or circumstances, or denying the mistake. But after some time has passed and the hurt has dissipated, we can see what really happened, and what role our actions played in the failure. Our actions and reactions are the only thing we can change going forward, and must be the center of our learning.

[Hat tip to Failure Consulting.]