Mistakes and how to make them

I have been working on a paper for INTRAC on jazz improvisation and learning in teams. Reading round the subject, I found myself thinking about the oft-quoted claim that we learn best from our mistakes rather than our successes. But do we? And what do we actually mean by the word ‘mistake’? It’s a word that comes laden with negative associations. So much so that I rarely feel comfortable using it.
So what is needed for some action to be identified as a mistake? First there needs to be an action that didn’t go according to someone’s expectations – often based on a plan for what was supposed to happen. Alternatively the action is measured against a standard and found wanting. If the ‘someone’ with the expectations is me or the criteria for making the judgment are clear to me from the outset, does making a mistake have greater potential for learning?
In Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovitch’s great book on improvisation, there is a chapter on ‘The Power of Mistakes’ that encourages us to embrace fully the idea of mistakes. He quotes Tom Watson, the one time CEO of IBM who said “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Jazz musicians have a slightly different take on mistakes. As musician Don Byas has said “There is no such thing as hitting a wrong note. It’s just that when you hit that wrong note, you’ve got to know how to make it right … you just keep weaving and there’s no way in the world you can get lost. You hit one. It’s not right, you hit another … As long as you keep going you’re all right, but don’t stop, because if you stop you are in trouble.”
Just recently I have come across two interesting references to mistakes. The first is a book entitled The Logic of Failure. I have just ordered it and judging by the ‘look inside’ seems to have some really fascinating things to say about the nature (and inevitability) of failure in complex systems. The other, somewhat serendipitously, arrived via an email list. It is a new website set up by Canadian Engineers Without Borders called Admitting Failure.
Their website is based on the premise that given the sheer complexity of development work, mistakes are not only inevitable, they should be seen as desirable learning experiences and shared widely. Since mistakes (or unintended consequences) are an inevitable part of life, we need to factor them in to our plans in some way. In the world of development projects, the almost ubiquitous planning tool is the logframe. The logframe has many critics, and justifiably so. It is pointed out by many critics that the logframe creates a planning straightjacket, stifling creativity and constraining the possibility of adaptation to address the unexpected. Logframes do have a component entitled ‘assumptions’ which is intended to encourage us to consider what might go wrong. In my experience the assumptions box is a missed opportunity. Often it is used for unhelpful lists of general factors that have to go right for the project to achieve its goals – such as ‘stable government’, ‘no civil war’, ‘community support’, and similar. But what if we used the assumptions section of the logframe to be creative about anticipating possible ‘mistakes’ and the reasons they might occur? This might liberate our thinking and help change our attitude to mistakes. We know that mistakes, in the sense of unanticipated outcomes, will always be made. What we need are ways of making them well. Engineers Without Borders, Canada encourages us to do so in their courageous website.


One thought on “Mistakes and how to make them

  1. Thoughtful post.

    In Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh there’s a quote about Japanese mathmatician Yutaka Taniyama:

    “He was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.”

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