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Make Some Green Mistakes!

Innovation and growth stem from making some mistakes by being open to trying new strategies

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Humor in the workplace "I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work." Thomas Edison

Studies show that a large percentage of both children and adults cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks, in particular, those who believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change tend to avoid taking chances that may lead to errors.

Parents and teachers unwittingly encourage this mind-set by praising people for being smart rather than for trying hard or struggling with the process.

Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, finds that as we get older, many of us invest a great deal in being right. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, we focus on flagellating ourselves, blaming someone else or covering it up. Or we rationalize it by saying others make even more mistakes.

What we do not want to do most of the time, is learn from the experience.

Professor Dweck gave students then a very tough test on which most did badly. They were given the option of bolstering their self-esteem in two ways: looking at scores and strategies of those who did worse or those who did better.

Those in the fixed mind-set chose to compare themselves with students who had performed worse, as opposed to those in "the growth mind-set," who more chose to learn by looking at those who had performed better.

An article in the Harvard Business Review called "The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes" proposed that there is too much focus on outcome rather than on process. If businesses and people are not making some mistakes, they’re playing it too safe. The resistance to making mistakes runs deep, but an environment that tolerates mistakes is necessary because:

Overconfidence can come with experience. Inexperienced managers make many mistakes and learn from them. Experienced managers may become so good at their work they no longer see ways to improve significantly. We are blinded by repetitiveness and self-protection.

We are risk-averse because our pride is tied up in being right. Employees are most often rewarded for good decisions and penalized for failures, so they spend a great deal of CYA time and energy trying not to make mistakes.

  • We tend to favor data that confirms our beliefs.
  • We assume feedback is reliable, although in reality it is often lacking or misleading.
  • We don’t often look outside tested channels.
  • We tend to fear big potential problems, but most situations aren't life threatening.

Of course, there are also stupid everyday kinds of mistakes -- nobody wants a worker who keeps making the same mistake and fails to learn a better way.

Researchers have looked at ways of encouraging people to make mistakes instead of avoiding them. People who are open to learning and not overly conscientious make progress when they are persuaded to make mistakes.

We get fixated on achievement and if you already know the answer, it’s not learning.

Setting goals to learn specific knowledge before you undertake challenging projects can help you identify what you are learning. For example, in the green area, goals might include

  • Instead of "What is the ROI?" how about, "Which metrics have the most impact?"
  • Which energy sources perform best?
  • Which keywords appeal to our customers most? How are they understood?
  • Which behavior changes have the greatest impact?
  • What surprises can we identify in an open ended experiment?

SOURCE: Saturday, November 24, 2007 - New York Times - Business Section

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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