Thursday, August 03, 2006

It's Often Cheaper to Make a Mistake

We are taught to learn from mistakes. One school of thought says it better be someone else's mistakes cause it is less pain to learn from them, the other claim "no pain no gain" and learning from your own mistakes leaves the longer memory the deeper scars. But both schools agree that there is no lack of learning material: we do so many mistakes of all kinds all the time.

What is a usual way to learn from the mistake in the corporate environment? Right: "Let's put some process in place to ensure we don't get to this situation again". It may be manager's natural reaction, and it may sound logical, but there are two fundamental problems with this approach.

First, a process has a maintenance cost. Documents have to be written and updated, meeting have to be carried and followed up, someone needs to own the process and inspect it, it adds up to work duties of more then one individuals. Put a process to ensure we don't fail again on this particular case? So what? Tomorrow we'll do newer, better mistake! We are very consistent in making all kinds of mistakes, and more productive on this front then most of us care to admit.

Eventually we may come to the point then we won't be doing any mistakes any more, but because we have covered all the areas with good processes: simply because people got so busy serving these processes they have no time left for making mistakes. No time for doing anything productive either.

Second, it takes juice out of the life. Building bureaucracy not only brings down the productivity, it spoils working environment. Robbing creators of their right to eventually fail hurts creativity. "Following the rules" doesn't foster "taking responsibility". With all those processes put in place the work is simply no fun. Hey, if you don't think the work is supposed to be fun, get out now and don't come and read my blog until you change your mind.

Still here? Ah, you came back! You are now saying it was a mistake to think that we are not supposed to enjoy the work?! Take it easy. We all make mistakes. We will continue to do it. It is indispensable part of any creative process. Analyze the mistakes, retrospect on them, learn from them. Then throw them away and go ahead and do more.

But resist the temptation to band every mistake with the process around it. The cost of this process will often offset the cost of the mistake multiplied by the probability of making it again.

If you're up for diving a bit deeper, share my joy of reading and thinking over this aphorism by one of my most favorite philosophers, Lev Shestov:

"We see a man repent for his actions, and conclude that such actions should be avoided: an instance of false, but apparently irreproachable reasoning. Time passes, and we see the same man repenting again of the self-same acts. If we love logic, this will confirm us in our first conclusion. But if we do not care for logic, we shall say: man is under an equal necessity to commit these acts, and to repent of them. Sometimes, however, the first conclusion is corrected differently. Having decided that repentance proves that a certain course of action should be avoided, man avoids it all his life; only to realize in the end, suddenly, with extraordinary clarity, how bitter is his regret that he has not trodden the forbidden course. But by this time a new conclusion is already useless. Life is over, and the newly-enlightened mind no longer knows how to rid itself of the superfluous light."
All Things are Possible (Apotheosis of Groundlessness)

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