Are you mistake tolerant or mistake intolerant?

An illustration of a man called Archie Cochraine

Archie Cochraine was a Scottish doctor who was born in 1909. He is famous for using randomised trials in his work to progress medical practice. He was known as the father of evidence-based medicine.

This is a story about one of his trials.

Archie was working in a hospital heart attack unit and wanted to explore what the best approach was for patient recovery. Was it in a specialised hospital unit, the common practice at the time, or was it in the patient’s own home?

The other doctors in the hospital were not happy with Archie for conducting this research – they accused him of meddling with patient lives and wellbeing. But Archie collected his preliminary results and gathered his colleagues to share the information.

An illustration of doctors and nurses shouting at a man in a suit in a hospital

He opened the meeting with his peers by saying, “I was wrong, and you are right, it is dangerous for patients to recover from heart attacks at home. They should be in a hospital.”

This declaration caused absolute pandemonium, and his colleagues started shouting at him, demanding he shut down the trial, and accusing him of killing patients with his ‘experiments’. Once everyone eventually calmed down, Archie calmly told them that he had switched the results. It was the hospital that killed more patients, and that patients should recover at home. He challenged, “Would you like to close down the trial now? Or should we wait until we have robust results?” Needless to say they relented and the trial continued.

So, what does this tell us, other than Archie was a bit of a showman? It shows us that most people are mistake intolerant, and this holds us back.

“The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake – you can’t learn anything from being perfect”

– Adam Osborne (Author, book and software publisher, computer designer)

Most people would label themselves as mistake intolerant.

This mistake aversion, the need to be perceived as perfect, is a piece of internal programming that is reinforced from a young age and can be difficult to re-write.

We see it all the time in the business world, and most organisations suffer from mistake intolerance.  

The reality is that improvement goes hand-in-hand with failure, but no-one should be tolerant of repeated mistakes. There’s a lesson in every failure, and the lesson needs to be followed through with action to prevent the failure happening again. When delivered effectively this is continuous improvement.

Developing a continuous improvement culture requires organisations to be mistake tolerant, and by that I mean comfortable with the fact that people make mistakes. 

Our top-tips for developing a mistake tolerant culture include:

  • Have a team round-up where people discuss what hasn’t worked well this week and why.
  • Focus on the mistake itself and why it happened, not on who made the mistake. Make it taboo to blame an individual for mistakes and always look for other explanations.  
  • Lead by example. Openly discussing your own failures makes other people feel more comfortable. 
  • Celebrate all ideas, not just those that were successful but also those that failed, and what that taught you. 

Once you are comfortable with the fact that you will make mistakes, you can divert attention into how you prevent mistakes. Whether that is stopping repeated mistakes from happening or preempting and preventing them from ever occurring. 

In the video below, we explain the approaches that effective continuous improvement cultures adopt to mistake proofing. Their focus is on making it impossible for the mistake to happen.

“Ad Esse challenged us as an organisation to think differently about our ways of working”

– Siobhan Handley, Deputy Dir. Of Public Fundraising & Individual Giving at Blood Cancer UK

There is a lot of creative energy to be tapped into when it comes to mistake proofing, all you need to do is give your people the permission, time, space, and inspiration to do it.

If you want help with that email, or use our Contact page.

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