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4 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Company’s Error Culture

By Dave Hengartner, co-founder/ CEO of rready, SaaS startup supporting companies to unleash the biggest asset for innovation: its employees.

You were not born knowing everything you know now, were you? I most definitely was not, so one might ask why organizations still have a hard time learning from mistakes. What is it that keeps companies from cultivating a culture of error within their own four walls?

On my journey working, advising and coaching over 30 corporations and other companies over the last five years, I have seen the company culture of many different firms, and I can tell you that a comprehensive and well-implemented error culture is not easy to come by. It is on everyone’s lips, and we are hearing it everywhere, but what about building it is so difficult?

First, we should ask: How can failure help you as an individual, but more importantly, as part of a company? As a founder of a SaaS company supporting and unleashing intrapreneurship within companies, I can tell you that with innovation nowadays being more important than ever, it is crucial to know that mistakes are the only thing that paves the way to potential success. The pace of innovation has picked up noticeably, so to get in on the action, you need to stay on the ball, which begins with the right mindset regarding the handling of errors.

Ideas hardly ever pan out the way they were originally intended. You need as many diverse ideas as you can get because a relatively few of those will succeed in the end. It is all about failing, killing ideas early and trying often enough. Let me tell you, from my experience, what four things I have identified that hamper an error culture.

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1. Thinking All Mistakes Are Equal

Not all errors are the same. It is safe to say that slip-ups should not happen. We all agree on that. A company that allows such mentality does not work efficiently, wastes resources and will be forced out of the market sooner or later.

However, some errors are unforeseeable, and for those, you should not punish your employees. Forbidding any kind of mistake to happen, nips every innovative idea in the bud by effectively limiting your employees’ motivation to get creative. You want creative and innovative solutions, which makes risks and thereby mistakes inevitable.

2. Preferential Treatment

Randomness will kill any credibility of maintaining an error culture. All mistakes, and especially mistakes that happen to people who are higher up on the career ladder, must be treated consistently in the same way as for the rest of the company.

At rready, for instance, a co-founder missed an important deadline for a new product. We convened a meeting with all the employees involved and discussed what went wrong and why. Place emphasis on letting management own up to their mistakes! This creates “role models” for employees in promoting an uncomplicated approach to mistakes and ensures a credible and fair error culture.

3. Sweeping It Under The Rug

When a mistake happens, talk about it! Make people tackle their mistakes instead of shaming them. Reward employees who dare to be open about it and can show they learned something.

As a precondition for a healthy error culture, you need the right feedback culture. Formats like “Friday failures” — where an open discourse about everyone’s weekly mistakes and lowlights — should be encouraged. Creating space for everyone at the company to reflect will reduce the chance of repeating volatile errors.

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All employees will benefit from hearing others’ mistakes, learning from one another and growing closer as a team. Ultimately, a culture of trust is achieved, which is the be-all-end-all of an open feedback culture.

4. A Lack Of Trust

As with personal relationships, trust in a company requires good communication. For a culture of error to thrive, there needs to be a culture of fairness, a culture of feedback and, finally, a culture of trust. If these are missing, then a company cannot establish a proper error culture.

Open, honest and transparent communication is essential and can be additionally promoted by those in leadership roles. Narrow-mindedness and being resentful make this enormously difficult. The courage to experiment, innovate and be creative must be supported, and it should be clearly communicated that mistakes are allowed to happen in the process. Flexibility and the willingness to accept change are needed from both employees and management.

In conclusion, I would like to say that a healthy error culture is crucial for a company’s success but it’s not a piece of cake to build and maintain. It requires explicit attention and work as achieving an error culture is not a product of chance.


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