Whoops! Recovering from Mistakes

Mistakes get a bad rap. Sure, everybody likes to talk about learning from mistakes, and there are many, many old sayings encouraging us to shrug off our mishaps.

But I've spent a lot of time in meetings devoted to deconstructing every step of a mistake -- how did this happen? Who did what? Who can we blame?

It's usually clear what happened within five minutes of reviewing the error, but the meetings almost always ramble on for another 45 minutes, assigning blame, shaming the people who messed up, and ensuring that everyone present will be hitting the hooch later on and sighing, "What a day!".

I am all for self-reflection.  Knowing how you got from point A to Disaster Ave. can be a valuable exercise. You can bet I have learned to double-check the latches on my springform pans since the little Thanksgiving mishap pictured at left.

And while I didn't love cleaning out the oven, I did enjoy the scent of pumpkin cheesecake that wafted through my house every time we cooked anything for three weeks afterwards.

That's why I love mistakes. They take you in new directions, give you insights you may not have gotten otherwise, and fuel creative solutions.

Several years ago, a client I was working with made a mistake in their segmentation that resulted in a whole bunch of people who had asked not to receive direct mail getting a special appeal. From an organizational perspective, it was a big mess-up. A few people called up, mad as all get-out that their wishes had been ignored. A few other generous souls gave to the appeal anyway.

The organization sat down and decided to contact the affected donors, thank them for their dedication, apologize for the error, and explain the new procedures that would ensure the same mistake was not repeated. They also gave the donors the opportunity to start receiving communications from the organization again, and several took them up on it.

As a result of the original mistake, they did lose a few donors. But they also streamlined their segmentation process, cemented the support of other donors, and had an invaluable opportunity to connect with a group of donors who had been virtually ignored.

Next time somebody (metaphorically) drops the cheesecake in your organization, go ahead and have the meeting. Figure out what happened and why it occurred. But spend the next 45 minutes talking about what you learned from the mistake and what opportunities opened up because of the error. At least then the drinking will be celebratory.