This article is reprinted with permission from The Ergonomics Report™ Archives, where it originally appeared on May 28, 2009.
Eighteenth Century poet Alexander Pope observed that “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In the 21st Century some experts in decision-making assert that in many circumstances no forgiveness is necessary. Indeed, they praise human error and failure as sound ways to make decisions and meaningful change. Their conviction vies with the much more entrenched message that erring is reprehensible, if not unforgivable.
Collectively, their books and research papers don’t dwell on circumstances where errors must be avoided at all costs. However instructive, administering the wrong dose of medicine to a patient or intentionally deactivating safety systems at a nuclear power plant to test a cooling system, which led to the Chernobyl accident, can’t be excused as learning experiences. The authors focus instead on helping their readers employ the trial-and-error approach profitably and determine when the potential gains outweigh any negative consequences.
There is no gain in what Stanley M. Gully, associate professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, calls "unintelligent failures." "If we fail and don't learn from it, it's not an intelligent failure," he said in a November 2007 interview in the New York Times. Nobody wants a worker who keeps making the same mistake.
The Case for Trial-and-Error
Professor Gully, with other researchers, has looked at ways of training people to do complex tasks and found that in some cases encouraging them to make mistakes works better than teaching them to avoid them. They found that individuals who were good at processing information, open to learning and not overly conscientious were more effectively trained if they were persuaded to make mistakes.
"We get fixated on achievement," he said, but, "everyone is talking about the need to innovate. If you already know the answer, it's not learning. In most personal and business contexts, if you avoid the error, you avoid the learning process."
Paul J.H. Schoemaker, the principal of Decision Strategies International and the research director for the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, asserts that if businesses and people are not making a certain number of mistakes, "they're playing it too safe."
In a June 2006 article for the Harvard Business Review, called "The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes." Schoemaker and co-author Robert E. Gunther, the founder of Robert E. Gunther Communications and a consultant with Decision Strategies International, assert that there is too much focus on outcome rather than on process.
Schoemaker and Gunther blame overconfidence for choosing what they regard as the wrong path in decision-making. “Inexperienced managers make many mistakes and learn from them. Experienced managers may become so good at the game they’re used to playing that they no longer see ways to improve significantly. They may need to make deliberate mistakes to test the limits of their knowledge.”
Mistakes are costly, according to Schoemaker and Gunther. The process should begin with determining when the cost outweighs the potential benefits, and the time is right when a fresh approach is needed to a complex problem. They say the most profitable failures are those that challenge a company's unquestioned assumptions, such as "Our clients buy on reputation; they have limited price sensitivity."
According to Schoemaker and Gunther, Citibank profitably examined a key assumption that underpins its consumer credit-risk assessments: college students, with high debts and no job, were terrible credit risks. The company decided to issue cards to students without requiring parents to co-sign. The "mistake" led to a valuable discovery: parents bailed out student cardholders when they couldn't pay, and many students ultimately became valuable long-term customers.
Globalization, among other developments, is producing a rapidly-changing business environment. The strategic advantage goes to nimble organizations and companies that learn faster than rivals. Schoemaker and Gunther observe that failing often, fast, and cheap may be the best way for a company to take the lead.
Trial-and-error strategies require open minds about being right and being wrong, and they are not easy to find. Correct answers win praise, good grades and often prizes. Generally, wrong answers win only scorn.
Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, explores the entrenched attitudes in her book “Mindset.” "Studies with children and adults show that a large percentage cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks," she said. In particular, those who believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change tend to avoid taking chances that may lead to errors.
Often parents and teachers unwittingly encourage this mindset by praising children for being smart rather than for trying hard or struggling with the process.
In a study that Professor Dweck and her researchers did with 400 fifth graders, half were randomly praised as being really smart for doing well on a test; the others were praised for their effort. They were given two tasks to choose from; an easy one that they would learn little from but do well, or a more challenging one that might be more interesting but induce more mistakes.
The majority of the children praised for being smart chose the simple task, while 90 percent of the students praised for trying hard selected the more difficult one. Professor Dweck described the difference as surprising because it came from one sentence of praise. "One thing I've learned is that kids are exquisitely attuned to the real message, and the real message is, 'Be smart,'" Professor Dweck said. "It's not, 'We love it when you struggle, or when you learn and make mistakes.'"
She regards being smart as a handicap in some circumstances. In “Beliefs that make smart people dumb,” her chapter in the book, “Why and When are Smart People Stupid,” she explains that many people become too invested on being smart and looking smart. “In other words, they focus on the trait of intelligence and on proving they have it, rather than on the process of learning and growing over time.”
Another author in the same volume cites the Clinton-Lewinsky interlude as an example of a dumb act by smart people.
In their 2001 book “Winning Decisions: Getting it Right the First Time,” J. Edward Russo and Professor Schoemaker note that in an organization where one mistake can derail a career and mistakes are judged only on outcomes, people become afraid to make decisions. They become afraid to do anything. If the track record is based on just a few big decisions instead of numerous smaller ones, a focus on outcomes carries the risk of rewarding good luck – or penalizing bad luck.
Arguing Process Vs. Outcome
Russo and Schoemaker argue that the best hope for a good decision outcome is a good decision process.
They explain that the outcome-focus among most decision-makers is not surprising. “After all, most organizations reward—or penalize—people based on the outcomes of their decisions. Results are what matter. You are given a raise or bonus for being highly productive. You are offered a promotion when the projects you manage consistently turn out well, and passed over for plum assignments when they fail.” They note that the organizational preference for outcomes exists in part because outcomes are usually easier to assess and are often more objective than assessments of process. A new service or new product is either profitable, or not. A team completes its task on time and within budget, or it doesn't.
Many people believe that good outcomes necessarily imply that a good process was used, according to Russo and Schoemaker, and assume the converse to be true: that a poor outcome necessarily signals a poor or incompetent process. Illustrating the observation, they said a division president asked them who he should promote; a manager with a track record of 50 percent mistakes; one with a 25 percent-mistake record; or the third, with no mistakes. He expected them to recommend the employee with zero mistakes.
Instead they responded with a question: "How does an experienced manager boast of a track record with no mistakes? The only way we know to have a track record of no mistakes is to do nothing." They pointed out that a focus on process would, instead, allow him to truly find the most worthy candidate for promotion.
Russo and Schoemaker note that a good process, even when tied to excellent implementation, won't guarantee a good outcome 100 percent of the time. Bad luck often intervenes. They believe that the closest to a guarantee of a good outcome is a good thinking/decision process followed by good implementation.
Comparing Process Vs. Outcome
In “Learning and Performance Orientations Across Levels,” a 2005 monograph in a series on personnel research, Professor Gully and Jean M. Phillips compare the process vs. outcome approaches, recasting the contest as performance orientation vs. learning orientation.
They observed that change resulting from a performance orientation “tends to be incremental in nature.” It can be related to decreased flexibility, but should be related to higher more consistent performance in the short term or in stable situations.
In contrast, they say, “learning orientations lead to a focus on the development of knowledge and skills through risk taking and experimentation. … Learning orientations are more likely to lead to profound changes in strategies and procedures. The benefits include increased adaptability, persistence and creativity.” The short-term disadvantage is lower efficiency and more errors due to greater risk taking and willingness to try new ways of doing things, they say, but these are offset in the long run by greater efficiency and lower error rates. Gully and Phillips conclude that both orientations are important to organizations.
Collectively, the authors regard erring and failure as powerful way to accelerate learning and increase competitiveness—as closer to divine than to unforgiveable in the Pope lexicon.
Title: “The Many Errors in Thinking About Mistakes”
Publication: New York Times, November 24, 2007
Title: “Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes”
Author(s) : Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Robert E. Gunther
Publication: Harvard Business Review June 2006
“Mindset” By Carol S. Dweck (Randon House, 2006)
“Winning Decisions: Getting it Right the First Time” By J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker (Currency/Doubleday, 2001
“Beliefs that make smart people dumb” By Carol S. Dweck. A chapter in the book
“Why and When are Smart People Stupid” Edited by Robert J. Sternberg (Yale University Press 2003)
“Learning and Performance Orientations across Levels” by Stanley M Gully and Jean M. Phillips, a chapter in “Research in Personnel and HR Management Vol 24,” Edited by Joseph J. Martocchio (Elsevier, 2005)