Understand your mistakes

There are a lot more types of mistakes than I originally myself thought. Each type requires differing treatment as their nature and origin is so different.

These are the types I differentiate

  1. New mistakes
  2. Repetitive mistakes
  3. Systematic mistakes

New and repetitive mistakes

When your business is young, growing and thus most likely in need of a steady stream of innovative solutions to increase and or reach product market fit, do differentiate between repetitive mistakes – mistakes that could have been prevented as the lesson was already learned – and “new” mistakes.


New mistakes usually mean, something went wrong or in other words and – even more important – “different than expected” for the first time. This should be the result of employees doing something new, strange, exploratory, something they had no experience with. They were working outside of their comfort zone. They were experimenting.

That’s exactly what you want! Recall: you are in need of innovation. Where else will you get innovative solutions from?

However, not only tolerate the new mistakes, but

  1. make them a learning: Document and disseminate them.
  2. And more importantly let your employees know that you monitor the volume of new mistakes they make per period as a performance benchmark! Read again: Establish a goal for new mistakes.

Not everyone enjoys being outside of their comfort zone. Not everyone enjoys making mistakes. Help them get over it and establish a culture where it is clearly expected to do so by introducing this metric.

HOW to do it wisely?

Practical guidelines:

  • Make sure their action is not mindless or reckless to start with. Making mistakes for the sake of making new mistakes is obviously useless.
  • Guide your employees to a healthy “f*** up level”. I like to have around 1-3 major f-ups per employee per revision period, usually a quarter. That’s about enough to digest and to learn from.
  • Ego is important: No one likes to be wrong about something they cared about. Strike a healthy balance between publicity (documentation and  dissemination) and parental care after new mistakes were made.
  • Lead! Drag your very own new mistakes out into the open. Walk the talk! I used to refer to a list I called “Where Christian was wrong”-list where I included my very prominent new mistakes.

Repetitive mistakes, however, require your managerial attention. New mistakes are like books, manuals or instructions of some sort, you pay for them in various ways – money, time, psychic stress. At times these books were very expensive. You don’t need the same book twice and certainly is paying twice pretty wasteful. Make sure, the same mistake is not made twice…let alone even more often.

NOTE: Where to focus on

Not all companies need this. If your company is not “in need of a steady stream of innovative solutions”, but instead in growth mode (keeping product market fit somewhat stable) with a proven approach to scale, don’t do this! You are past the trial and error, move-fast-and-break-things phase. You have the benefit of an established approach to scale. Don’t  unsettle it because the newest claim from Silicon Valley says so. In fact it is now ever more important to focus on dramatically lowering repetitive as well as systematic mistakes. The latter I will outline now.

Systematic mistakes

Systems are rigid and do one thing and one thing only: their task. Humans on the other hand do make human mistakes and always will but they have the ability to design systems. Combining the strengths of the two is key.

Most of the time, in my experience, mistakes made are systematic mistakes. These mistakes occur when a system allows for human nature to make mistakes instead of preventing employees from doing so.

Clearly differentiate here between the types of mistakes as it is utterly important to reduce the degree to which humans are allowed to make mistakes in any given system. As for a start-up, systems are outgrown constantly and replaced by new ones – at least should be. That means, a lot of processes are created and abandoned all the time. That means systems are outdated all the time.

Hence, do not get too lazy to go the extra mile in updating or fixing the system to reduce the probability of humans making mistakes. Once outdated, any system requires an increasing amount of employee attention to not make systematic mistakes – usually focusing on all pitfalls of the system. This either 1) reduces capacity for more work (remember in a start-up, there is always more work) or 2) if forced upon the employee nonetheless the probability of errors increases just as more work is put on an employee. Then, inevitably, I promise,

  1. systematic mistakes accrue,
  2. false drawbacks in feedback talks occur where systematic mistakes are not seen as such but only as mistakes,
  3. employee motivation drops,
  4. an otherwise possibly awesome employee leaves,
  5. that gets contagious within the team
  6. > you see that this isn’t going anywhere good.


  • Check where your focus should be: increase “new mistakes” versus reduction of “repetitive mistakes”
  • Identify systematic mistakes as such
  • Don’t blame employees for systematic errors but the system
  • Don’t be lazy in system design

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