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Learning from Big Mistakes

Everyone is human – you will make mistakes. This fact shouldn’t come as a surprise even if you are used to excelling in your field. Surprising though, it is a fact that often surprises bosses about their workers. Sometimes, people can go a very long time without one, which can be beneficial to both them and the company they work for. It can often seem that these folks are charmed. Unfortunately, when the mistake does come, it is often fairly large, and the people standing tallest often have the longest way to fall.

Uncle Sam Calm Down

Mistakes happen. Calm down and deal with it.

It’s unfortunate, then, that we as a society are not as forgiving of mistakes as we should be, given their frequency. Mistakes often result in some form of backlash or consequences, and usually come with a reprimand, whether deserved or not. The problem is that a fear of mistakes can also lead to a crippling paralysis that makes productivity all but impossible. As an analogy, consider people in the performing arts. If actors and singers refused to perform because they were afraid of mistakes, the scene would become utterly barren. If writers refused to release new books due to fear of typos, grammatical errors, and negative reviews, we’d soon all run out of reading material.

In addition to stagnating workflow, fear of mistakes has another surprising consequence: in an organization where people are too afraid of making mistakes, people are also not learning. It may seem like a business’ dream when everything is humming along for years without a hitch; but the problem is, when a mistake finally happens, and problems do arise, the organization and the people involved are often too thrown off to know how to effectively deal with it and recover. No one has learned how to cope with it, and so no one steps forward to take the helm and guide the organization out of the treacherous waters.

In IT, the fear of mistakes has the potential to be crippling for a company. It can delay for years the implementation of systems and processes that might greatly increase productivity and profitability. For example, SAP is a system that is likely appropriate for several different large companies. But many may choose to refuse it or any other software system in favor of what is comforting and familiar. Why? Because reliance on a computer system may create efficiency, but what happens if it fails one day? Then, the entire organization becomes inoperative until the problem gets fixed. Many organizations just don’t want to take that chance.

These are the types of objections you often have to overcome as an SAP consultant. And, unfortunately, those objections may be “confirmed” when you go through the implementation process and you hit snags and make mistakes. What, payroll might be delayed because the accounting functions weren’t implemented perfectly the first time? We knew this would happen, this just confirms it… and so on.

The first step towards dealing with these problems is to accept that they will happen. Someday, something is going to go wrong, and it is going to have a negative effect on someone else’s business. What determines your success, then, is not your ability to avoid mistakes, but your ability to deal with them when they arise.

Do you launch into a frenzied panic and inefficiently start bailing water? Do you fall over yourself apologizing? These are ways to only exacerbate the situation. While an apology might occasionally be warranted, and the gravity of the situation should not be downplayed, it is still important to remember: you are only human, and mistakes are part of the job description. Taking responsibility for them is one thing, but needless groveling is another. Instead, the right response is to calmly assess the situation, determine a step-by-step process for resolving it, and get to work. By providing guidance through a stressful crisis, you can often help a company come out even better on the other side – more profitable, and more prepared to deal with any errors that occur in the future.

This approach does not advocate becoming sloppy – your attitude shouldn’t simply become, “Oh, well, it’s okay if I make a mistake, because I can just fix it later” (at least not all the time). But it should help you to understand that it is okay to proceed and to make progress, because if a mistake does arise, you can handle it, and your organization and your career will benefit from your ability to keep a level head and do what needs to be done.

*Image courtesy of 21sacraments via Creative Commons

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About the Author:

Pete has been working with SAP technologies for over 10 years. He started out as an ABAP consultant and then moved on to BW where he has worked many different clients covering a wide variety of industries. "I love introducing SAP technology (especially BI) to new clients and showing them how they can go from zero to hero within their business in super fast time". Contact me on twitter @PeterMoxon