Thursday, September 10, 2009

There are no mistakes, only lessons.

Post 322 - Innovation and imagination can be spurred on by many things, including laziness, as in the story of the farmer and his wife sitting by the fire one evening. The wife said, ”Tom, I think it’s raining. Can you go outside and see?” The farmer, who was very comfortable where he was, thought for a second, then replied, “Why don’t we just call the dog in and see if she’s wet?”

Risk taking, however, is a key component of innovation and you can't expect to always be right in your choices. “The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try,” according to Peter Drucker.

Taking risks involves making intelligent mistakes. Occasional failure is the price of improvement. Think of learning as a stabilizer in times of change. It takes a certain amount of counter-evidence to challenge old behaviors, and it takes further efforts to unfreeze these behaviors, delete obsolete theories, and replace them with new ones. Learning and unlearning are complimentary capabilities and people need to use both of them simultaneously, especially in rapidly changing environments. We learn nothing from the things we already know. But we can learn from the mistakes of others - you can never live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself.

I believe there are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is an experimental process of trial and error. The failed experiments are as much a part of the process as those that ultimately work. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you've learned it. And after you've learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson. There's no part of life that doesn’t have its lessons. As long as you’re alive, there are lessons to be learned - the learning never ends. As Karl Popper writes in Conjectures and Refutations, “Our aim must be to make our successive mistakes as quickly as possible.”

Carroll O’Connor, the legendary “Archie Bunker” of TV fame once said, “Professional acting has a kind of tension. The amateur is thrown by it but the professional needs it.” Like a wind-up clock, the professional can't really tick without some tension. When Steve Ross ran MTV, he had a wonderful philosophy - that people got fired for not making mistakes. While solutions reached by rational means may not be the right ones, at least you can backtrack and try to find where you took a wrong turn. Rational thinking doesn’t guarantee wisdom of thought anymore, just transparency.

In most organizations today, knowledge is scattered, hard to find, and prone to disappear without a trace. The Nobel prize winning economist, F. A. Hayek, in an essay on the use of knowledge in society, wrote that, “the knowledge ... we must make use of never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” Traditionally, finding solutions to problems focused on finding the right answer. But, in many cases today, there's no single answer. Rather, there are many often inconsistent and competing answers, none of which has a unique claim to validity. So, risk taking is inevitable in finding the best route forward ... and the most risky route is to try and do it all by yourself.

I'll end this post with a quote from Martin Luther to use as a mantra for moving forward: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.”

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