Photo treatment: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How To Encourage Learning By Making "Smart Mistakes"

We’ve written here before that you can learn a lot from your mistakes, but of course you shouldn’t seek out mistakes. Or, should you? In fact, there’s a class of mistakes that you can more than recover from – that you can use as tools to discover and test out new ideas. Let’s call them “smart mistakes.”

Merriam-Webster says a mistake is “a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention.”

Smart mistakes take aim at the “inadequate knowledge” that is at the root of many creative or innovative projects. Consider the scene pictured above.

If your objective is to cross the brook without getting wet, you would carefully plan your crossing, looking for a path along a series of stones, each within a step’s distance. But even then, could you guarantee you wouldn’t fall in? If this is your first crossing, you would certainly have inadequate knowledge. A stone could be wobbly, or the surface more slippery than it appears. You won’t know till you try the crossing.

Smart mistakes take aim at the “inadequate knowledge” that is at the root of many creative or innovative projects.

When we confront a new situation, there’s no way to guarantee immediate success.  You will take “wrong actions as a result of inadequate knowledge.” So what kind of steps can you take to ensure your mistakes are smart mistakes, rather than dumb ones?

1. Reduce the cost of failure.

For the river crossing, it could be asking your friend to go first (joking!). Or it could be removing your shoes and socks so that they’ll stay dry. In other words, choosing a course of action that allows a mistake to have minimal cost. So your budget – be it financial, time or otherwise – can last longer. In his book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims discusses how Pixar’s extensive storyboarding and Procter & Gamble’s rough prototyping processes allow them to gain important feedback early and cheaply.

2. Gain maximum learning from each attempt.

Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian MacMillan, in their classic Discovery-Driven Growth, emphasize the importance of documenting assumptions and taking steps to validate those along the way. They recommend creating experiments specifically designed to test out parts of a business plan – business model, market size, development estimates, competition, etc.

If you were crossing the brook, therefore, you would want to use many senses – sight, hearing, touch – to analyze the situation as you crossed. Are big rocks more stable than small ones? Does a rock move when you first step on it?

3. Order your steps properly.

Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, authors of the book, Innovation Tournaments, demonstrate that in creating a new product or service, the order of operations is crucial to success. Their great counterexample is Segway. Enamored by his technological vision for a self-balancing, easy-to-ride, 2-wheeled scooter, Segway inventor Dean Kamen invested in a full product design, supply chain and even lobbying efforts – before he had thoroughly studied the market or created product demos – relatively cheap and fast activities.

Kamen took the most expensive, most prolonged steps first. When he confidently sprung his product on the marketplace in December 2001, the hype was intense – and only after it died down did he begin to learn about the marketplace. Rather than fulfilling his VC’s prediction of reaching $1 billion in sales faster than any other company, Segway by the mid-2000′s had sold a total of 23,600 scooters – less than $118 million in retail revenue in four years. Segway was a high-profile and expensive failure. 

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Don’t do what Segway did. Do as much work as possible on paper first. Do the cheapest steps that give you the most information (see above steps 1 and 2), and only armed with that information plunge into a long, expensive development process.

And one final type of smart mistake…

Can you imagine a situation in the brook crossing where you would walk in the water, avoiding the stones on purpose? This is a deliberate mistake, an intentional act that defies your internal sense of logic. Why would you do something like this?

Our feelings of what makes sense and what doesn’t are shaped by our deepest assumptions.  Those assumptions, for example that walking in dry shoes is more comfortable than in wet shoes, are mostly useful. But some aren’t valid, or have become obsolete over time.

Making what Paul Schoemaker, author of Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, calls “deliberate mistakes” is called for in this situation. In one example Schoemaker cites, AT&T Long Distance challenged its traditional credit-checking standards in a subset of accounts by eliminating credit-checking altogether. (Note that trying the change on a small sample reduced the cost of failure.) Did they think this made sense? No: they had every reason to believe that their long-trusted algorithms worked. But they had no other way of finding out whether their approach to credit-checking was still the best policy they could pursue.

AT&T learned that the increased profit from new customers far outweighed the increased bad debt they incurred by approving everybody regardless of credit rating. The “mistake” turned out to be the right approach.
What About You?
Smart mistakes aren’t blunders; they are well-considered actions that reveal new information or challenge our assumptions. They should be a key part of your creative toolkit. How do you enable smart mistakes in your work?

More insights on: Failure, Risk-Taking

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at mistakebank.com or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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