Why Valuing Our Mistakes Matters

I’m a fan of Ted Talks. And two of my favorites are Brené Brown’s talks in 2010 and 2012. In the 2012 talk, she spoke about the importance of valuing our failures. I couldn’t agree more.

Brené is among numerous authors and speakers that have talked about how, as we mature, we are socialized to become averse to taking risks that could result in failure. None of us would have learned to walk had we been as averse to failure in childhood as we become in adulthood. We would have hoisted ourselves up, fallen right back down, looked around self-consciously, and promptly decided that the prize wasn’t worth the potential damage to our self-esteem. We would have then rationalized our choice by saying that walking was really overrated anyways! A humorous example, but how often does it describe our own actions when it comes to taking a chance and putting ourselves out there?

While I think that the topic has importance for how we live our lives as individuals, I also think it has relevance in the context of how we manage human service programs. Do we allow staff to take some measured risks? Do we encourage thoughtful experimentation knowing that some experiments might fail? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we intentionally put people’s lives at risk or that we set people up for failure. I just believe that always doing the same things means always getting the same results, and sometimes that isn’t good enough. The issues our clients and communities face are getting more complex and the resources to address them are becoming increasingly scarce.

So how do we go about encouraging mistakes or failures to address these complex issues and problems? Complex Systems Theory is a place to start. Dave Snowden, a well-known author and speaker on the subject of complex systems, talks about moving from a ‘fail-safe’ mindset to a ‘safe-to-fail’ mindset when addressing complex problems. Snowden and others suggest that successful solutions to complex problems are often novel and emerge out of the context in which they are occurring rather than being imposed from above or outside. By allowing people to experiment in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment (i.e., no one is going to get hurt or be punished for failure), you encourage the kind of innovation that is needed. The experiments that don’t work are dampened and the ones that do are amplified.

So why aren’t we taking this approach to solving problems? Why aren’t we engaging in actively trying new things knowing that we will likely be met with at least some measure of failure? Although part of it is the potential to waste time and resources (which are scarce) on things that may not work, I think the real issue is that mistakes and failures expose us. It requires us to be vulnerable as managers and leaders. But as Brené says in her Ted Talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”.

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