I’m on a plane in Central America in 1981. The guy in the next seat, who works for 3M, shows me these little pads that I later learn are called Post-it Notes. He enthusiastically describes how useful they’ll be in the work place. I remember being skeptical; obviously I was wrong.
Post-its were invented as a result of an accident, the error in trial and error. They’re featured in a new Inc. Magazine article: 9 Brilliant Inventions Made by Mistake. Other mistakes include Corn Flakes, penicillin, pacemakers and plastic. Plenty of others could have been added to that list of nine, for example:
- In 1853 Levi Strauss mistakenly brought a bunch of canvas to San Francisco thinking he’d sell tents to gold prospectors. It turns out they preferred to sleep under the open sky. But what they really wanted was durable pants, so he turned his cloth into a new business.
- Ivory Soap was “invented” when a Procter and Gamble worker went to lunch and accidently left the mixer on. They shipped the defective bars anyway, and soon customers wanted more of the soap that floats.
Not all mistakes are equal. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” Like a dead patient or cement wall, some mistakes are set-in-concrete irreversible.
Fortunately, most of the time we make mistakes it’s a learning opportunity — at the very least what doesn’t work. Have you ever worked with a leader who won’t allow a project to move forward until there’s zero chance of anything going wrong? It’s dysfunctional, and little happens there.
A.A. Milne summed it up, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience — well, that comes from poor judgment.”
Tom Peters tells us to celebrate failures. In The Little Big Things, he posits his Theory of Failure:
- To succeed, you have to try more stuff than the other guy — fast.
- If you try more stuff in a hurry, you’ll make lots of mistakes.
- Hence, screwing up a lot is a very good sign of progress—perhaps the only sure sign.
- If we aim to (more or less) maximize screw-ups, then we must do more than “tolerate” screw-ups.
- We must “encourage” screw-ups.
- We must celebrate screw-ups!