Saturday, April 10, 2010

Learning from Mistakes - A Case for the Humble Executive

I formulated a theory in junior high regarding two types of people: those who observe and learn from the mistakes of others and those who choose to learn from the hard knocks of life. Each of us actually learn using both of these methods, but those who are most adept at learning from the mistakes of others and avoiding those pitfalls altogether have a distinct advantage.

Marketers and business executives also have the opportunity to observe, research, and learn from the mistakes of others. Too often ego and a desire to drive a personal agenda get in the way of insight and lead to poor and avoidable business decisions.

Here are two powerful ways to minimize mistakes:

1. Understand all you can about the mistakes of others
2. Remain humble and fully experience pain for the mistakes you make

Mistakes are Largely Avoidable

Entrepreneurs and executives who take the time to evaluate their failures seldom admit they had the ability to avoid the mistakes they make. I have been in several postmortem meetings where the final stated conclusion has been, "well, at least we know what to avoid next time." While this sort of a statement sometimes indicates some learning has taken place, it seldom reflects the true nature of the most common underlying mistake: executing on a poor strategy.

Learning from the Mistakes of Others

Today, with so much information freely available, it's inexcusable to emulate another organization's previous failure. Marketing Sherpa, Harvard Business Review, marketing blogs, and other sources of case studies, catalogs of failures, and best practices are readily available. Not reviewing these sources of information when formulating and executing on strategies is in itself a huge mistake.

Even more inexcusable is a tendency to ignore institutional knowledge related to previous business failures. When I was a marketing director at, a new commerce manager suggested we create a product catalog for the 30 to 40 products we had at the time. Realizing I was being recruited to the project, I asked about the catalog's purpose and the expected impact it would have on sales.

The answers I received weren't very convincing, so I approached the publishing team to ask what they thought. In the process I learned they had created a catalog the year before. The catalog had been a lot of work and generated no measurable impact on sales. Not only had the project been a financial failure, it has also cost the company other publishing opportunities.

Although I recommended we not publish a new catalog, the project moved on without me. The result was  spending more than $10,000 on a catalog that was outdated as soon as it rolled of the press because of pricing changes and the introduction of new products. Copies of the catalog traveled to genealogy conferences (where no catalog was necessary because our products were already on display),  but the main point of distribution was our office's reception desk, which received virtually no walk-in business from our customers.

The website, on the other hand, had an e-commerce product catalog that was viewed by millions of people each month with a cost of less than a penny per visit. Printing the catalog was an obvious and avoidable mistake, but a new commerce manager was more enamored with the project than in pursuing measurable objectives.

Countless case studies now exist related to the effectiveness of print vs. online catalogs, especially for companies that are online. Could you imagine coming out with a print catalog tomorrow? (If you work at and have been pushing for this project, please reconsider.) Ignoring these case studies is foolishness. But some people do everything they can to avoid information that contradicts their own desires.

Knowing ahead that it may not be a good idea to create a print catalog for a website that is primarily promoted through email and has no offline presence might make others question the strategy. Why risk presenting information that might lead anyone to suggest your brainchild might be a bad idea? Maybe the last 10 companies that failed with your strategy had poorly executed on the concept, right? When you emerge from the smoldering ashes and charred chaos of your predictable failure, you can always exalt the learning that has taken place and say, "well, at least we know what to avoid next time."

On Being Teachable

Closely related to selective ignorance, the second cause of avoidable failure is pride--a lack of humility that obscures good judgment and prevents many executives from accepting responsibility for their actions. Failure hurts, and it should.

I have a problem when people internalize mistakes by claiming they have "no regrets" or that they would "not change a thing" or if given the chance they would "do it again." These people often say they are grateful for their mistakes because they "made me who I am today." If addressed properly, mistakes do give us insights, expose our weaknesses, and allow us the opportunity to change; however, the lesson learned should be how to avoid mistakes rather than how to embrace them as part of our identity.

To illustrate this point, I'd like to draw from two examples in popular culture: Mark McGuire and Jude Law.

The following is Mark McGuire's apology in January 2010 for steroid use during the his baseball career in the mid-90s:
"I'm sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn't take any and I had bad years when I didn't take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn't have done it and for that I'm truly sorry."
While not the most humble apology, his admission of steroid use was and associated remorse were clear. He was unequivocal in saying he should not have taken steroids, although he also made the argument that the steroids didn't really help him hit all those home runs. In the end, he got across the point that he regretted his actions and not coming forward earlier. That sounds pretty sincere. After his admission the story played in the media for a couple of days and nearly immediately died down.

Now contrast that with so many celebrities who make mistakes and never have remorse or take responsibility for their actions. Here's a quote from Jude Law on his past infidelity:
"There's no regret, you can't regret. I mean, I've felt regret but I've also refused to allow regret to sow a seed and live in me because I don't believe it. You feel it, it's like guilt, it's like jealousy, it's like all those horrible things and ... you've just got to snip them and get them out, because they're no good. Because if you regret, in a way, have you learnt and moved on?"
Wow! He says he "learned" and "moved on." Isn't it OK to regret mistakes? Or do we have to internalize them and say, "that's just part of who I am"? Mistakes don't make us failures; they make us human. But they also provide us with the opportunity to learn from the pain and discomfort they create. Why should we avoid the pain of our mistakes? Ultimately, isn't it the fact that we regret our mistakes that demonstrates that we have actually learned from them?

Remorse and of regret of our mistakes generates the pain that serves as a reminder that we don't want to repeat a poor decision. It's a natural consequence. How can we sincerely apologize and "feel sorry" if we try to avoid regret altogether?

Now I'm not saying we should have everyone who commits adultery walk around wearing a letter "A" sewn into their clothes. That's not what I'm suggesting here. What I am suggesting is that learning from our mistakes requires us to "own" our mistakes. That's the only way to move on. It's not good enough to say, "I have no regrets. Those mistakes made me who I am today."

A statement that shows true learning has taken place would be something like this: "I'm glad I learned from my mistake. I wish I hadn't done it, and I will do everything I can to avoid that mistake in the future."

Too many executives are unwilling or unable to face their mistakes and learn from them. Far too many excuses are made for mistakes that could have been easily avoided if only the executive had listened or learned from the insights and experiences of others.

When mistakes are made, it's more important to understand "why" the mistake happened than "what" the mistake was. The "what" is already obvious, but the root cause is the "why.". Understanding and coming to terms with "why" a mistake was made--the circumstances and process that allowed the mistake to be made--is the learning that helps us avoid the mistake in the future. That's the part that requires humility to learn.

I have found that working with executives who are humble and willing to admit and take responsibility for mistakes is not only refreshing but actually inspiring. It's amazing to see people actually own up and take responsibility for poor decisions. And when executives take responsibility for mistakes, those around them have more confidence that the executives and the organizations they lead will be able to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

So, let's learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Let's allow the pain of regret to motivate us to improve the processes and scenarios by which decisions are made and overcome our blind spots to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Jim.

    Over the years, as I was just a guy in the trench I did pay attention to what worked and what didn't work. What contributed to successes and what ended up failing miserable. What improved morale and what shattered it. I started to realize that I had a pretty good instinct for these things.

    But none of that mattered until I was the actual decision maker. I realize now you have to be in the moment to appreciate making the decision. Instinct is great, but why wouldn't you research, as you suggest, the successes and failures of companies gone before?

    These days that would seem like a fundamental competitive behavior. Especially in the local area that is ripe with "me toos" competing with you.

    Thanks for the post.


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