Article 5.4


In management seminars and convention workshops, there is a common group of questions that center around getting employees to increase initiative. Because most first-time endeavors are failures, we must allow employees to fail, learn, and try again - to make good mistakes. There are at least four things that managers must do, however, to stimulate good mistakes:

1. Define what is a good mistake, because there are not-so-good ones too.

2. Lead by example and share some personal good and less-good mistakes.

3. Give people more opportunity areas in which to fail by delegating.

4. Praise any initiative, and not criticize weak initial results or turf encroachment.


There are at least four stages to the good mistake. The first is to think through the initiative to ensure that there is some upside worthwhile benefit for someone and plan to maximize it. Instead of guessing that a target beneficiary might love the results of an initiative, they should be asked how much they would value/pay for the intended results. Then for the cost side of the effort, anticipate what would be the worst case cost, lowest benefit yield scenario, and plan to minimize the downside risk.

The second stage is to do something; take the plunge, cheaply and gradually if possible. Don't jump in the middle of the river to check out conditions; wade in. Also, design the experiment so that if it fails more or less, there were not so many uncontrolled variables and inadequate measurements that a lesson can not be learned.

The third stage is to learn from the experiment, and the fourth stage is try again in a new improved way assuming that the upside potential still exists.

Using this four stage checklist, we can recall lots of not-so-good mistakes. For example, we have all been guilty of: assuming a target person would love some initiative; working too many hours for which we denied the true cost; and when the effort flopped, we were never sure why. Sometime later we may have found ourselves making the same mistake in a different disguise.

If an organization doesn't want to spend time teaching employees how to apply these four stages with in-house case studies, a short-cut guideline attributed to 3M Corporation is "make a little, sell a little; make some more, etc." Lots of cheap testing allows us to get lucky occasionally, perhaps for the wrong reasons, but we are net ahead for trying.


The CEO of a firm should make the biggest, most expensive mistakes of all; it comes with the leverage and the decisions of the job. This person should define what good mistakes are; why they are necessary from everyone for the firm to move forward; and then share some personal good and not-so-good mistakes. If the CEO can choose a few whoppers and share them, perhaps disguised, to show the costs and the lessons, then it might help someone in a warehouse to put a bet of $50 worth of downside risk money to save $100 all into perspective.

Royal Little who created the first conglomerate out of Textron showed the right attitude in a book he wrote which was sub-titled something like, "$100 Million Of Mistakes that I Have Made."


The art of delegating is to give someone enough rope that they will probably burn themselves a little and learn because pain instructs, but not enough with which to hang themselves. Two sources of daily delegation possibilities are reverse delegation attempts and proactive unloading of routine tasks.

If someone walks in our door looking for operational help, we can't let them reverse delegate their thinking and decision responsibility to us. Say, "Gee, I don't know anything about what type of bags we need to buy for the warehouse, but I guess the objective here is probably not to run out of them. I'm sure that you can figure out what to do. Use the four steps for a "good mistake" and if you make one, the cost to the company will be your tuition to learn and try again." Manage by objective, not directive. Answer questions with questions. Ask them to walk you through a "Four-Step, Good-Mistake Form." But, avoid doing their thinking and work for them, and resist the urge to show that you know the best answer instantly. Rescue is robbery; it robs them of learning for themselves, and it will make them more dependent in the future.

Besides avoiding reverse delegation, proactively delegate routine activities down the line. The average executive apparently spends too much time doing delegatable activities and too little time solving future-oriented problems that they are uniquely qualified to do. To cut through the excuses for why this delegation does not occur, a good cure would be to brainstorm with others about what are the most critical things the executive must do and wants to do. Then, with a wish list in front of them, new ways to off-load opportunities to others might occur.


Most new employees in the euphoria of starting and out of ignorance of local customs will offer a gift of initiative to the company and offer extra help. If this gift to the cause is not recognized and appreciated, or if the initiative is scolded for one of two typical reasons:

1. "Who did this imperfectly? Do you know what this will cost?"

2. "Who said you could do that? This is my job and don't forget it."

Then, this well-intentioned person is apt to never bother to offer initiative again.

Before trying to overcome employee fears about coming out of their shells and showing good-mistake initiative, we must overcome fears within management. The two scolding scenarios above suggest that managers might be afraid of being blamed for mistakes by others in their area and of any encroachment on their duties which is a personal identity/status issue. Often these problems are not solved by explaining them to managers; they intellectually buy the need for behavior change, but employee initiatives can hit at a manager's low self-esteem and still trigger criticism. Look for and promote psychologically mature people who can share power and shoulder often trivial, indirect blame for imperfect efforts.


The prescriptive steps for promoting good mistakes is straightforward. The biggest problems are management ones. Can we be of strong and steady self-esteem so that we can: share our mistakes with the troops as a role model; not become uncentered when someone fails or exceeds our own effort; not have to be the operational hero who solves all the problems or the teacher who must outshine the students with our expertise, but be the patient, slightly dumb listener; and be able to give up chunks of our job that we have comfortably mastered and enjoy to pursue new challenges where we are apt to make the big, good mistakes that come with being a leader?

Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc., Article 5.4