Mistakes are an essential element of creating. It’s not a question of ‘doing it wrong’. It’s a question of observing, playing, experimenting, analyzing, visioning, trying things out, trying ideas on. Mistakes are about learning.

If you’re not making mistakes, then you are not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.

John Wooden, Basketball Coach

Mistakes are arrows painted on the road to a creative destination.

Managers, hear me now…

If you are not willing to allow your team to take the ride, don’t expect them to arrive. You will likely be disappointed in the final result if you expect your team to innovate, discover or create anew without making mistakes.

Walk with me:

You are a child. You are playing ‘kitchen’ or ‘toolshed’ or ‘bikes’ or something. Let’s say it’s ‘kitchen’.

You have the Bake-It-Easier-Than-Mom oven going. You’ve whipped up your first little chocolate brownie cake, popped it in the oven and set your little table. Your siblings are seated and waiting. Everyone hears the ‘ding’ that lets them know the baking is done. Mouths are watering.

Excited, you open the oven door and take the ‘cake’ out. It looks a vaguely grey on one side, but hey, it’s a cake and you made it! You break it into pieces, pass the plates, and everyone takes a bite. Your youngest sibling get’s an awful look on his face. The older one let’s out an ‘eewwww’ and they leave your table disappointed. You are crestfallen.

You try to recover your baker confidence as Mom helps you determine that maybe you didn’t stir the ingredients enough. The sibs were getting a big mouthful of salt or baking powder. Round two …

What if you are the first person to try to make cake?

Let’s say you are the first person in the world, ever, to try making a cake. No one has done this before, so no one knows what it could taste like or what happens when you don’t stir the batter enough. Fail this time and your whole village is disappointed. You may decide, “It doesn’t work.”

No cake for the world because you quit on the first try. On the upside, maybe the world is a little slimmer, but really, no cake?

Or, maybe you’re the boss …

Let’s say you were the boss of the first person to try making cake. They failed and it disappointed customers. You said, “That’s it. It doesn’t work. No more messing with this cake thing. It’s a waste of time and resources.”

No cake for the world because you put on the brakes …

And, Your Competition?

Your competition across town may keep at it. They begin to understand cake problems and figure out the solutions.

After one-hundred or so mistakes, they actually invent the cake. It’s delicious. People don’t just like it, they love it! They love the baker for making it. They buy that baker’s bread, muffins and pies, too.

That baker probably agreed with Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” … Until, they found the one that did.

That baker now knows a lot about cake, too. They have stories about the art and science of making cake. You know what that means – interviews, articles, guest speaker engagements, a prime spot in the culinary history books. Probably a picture, too.

I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.

Thomas Edison

(Sometimes a mistake isn’t a mistake)

Here’s a thought. Sometimes, it’s not about getting it wrong. It may be about timing or being in sync with people’s needs, expectations, or understanding.

I learned as an actress that if you thought a perfect, mistake-free audition was going to get you the part, you would be in for a lot of disappointment. The casting director could want a blonde and you are brunette, or they’d want someone more like that one … and you weren’t.

Or, they like vanilla and you made a strawberry masterpiece. Or, they want the widget to be fireproof and yours is innovatively flammable and self destructing at the perfectly timed moment and they don’t understand or trust. Get the picture? Be careful about what you are calling a mistake. (Remember, stickie notes were just someone else’s take on a failed permanent glue.)

Back to mistakes: make room for them. Trust in them.

Plan for and welcome mistakes and setbacks. Reframe them as learning experiences. Explore and value the information and work product that come with them. Make the time for creating something truly special by making time for mistakes.

Make sure your team knows that you expect the learning experiences that come with creating. They will make mistakes and watch to see if you mean what you say.

Mean it. Cement their trust.

Then, creative energy will flow. With trust in the process, your team will loosen up, redouble focus and release imagination. You grow a confident, creating machine that surprises you and themselves. You take us all places we haven’t been, create solutions, products, and worlds we haven’t imagined.

That’s what mistakes are really good for. Not just the learning they produce, but the creative freedom they bring and the passion they can generate.

One can measure passion and sense of purpose for a subject or project by how willing we are to wade through the challenge of mistakes and learning. Do they turn on our wonder and hunger to know more? Or, do they make us tired and bored? The latter is more often a result of one’s interest and passion than of the value of the project itself.

If you are about having your innovation cake and eating it, too, mistakes are part of the recipe.

If the work is creating ’new’ … a new dish, script, program, painting, system, procedure, technique, company, song, fragrance, answer, question, a new solution, …

… people are going to be making mistakes.

That’s part of the fun 😉

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