Let’s Talk Story about GOOD Mistakes

Preface: This post could also be called Mistakes are Cool, Part 2:
Mistakes are part of the learning process.

Part 1 is here.

There are good mistakes (they help us learn as we live) and bad mistakes (the careless or chronic ones that plague the thoughtless or irresponsible), and I’ve found that in a life managed with aloha the bad ones become rare.

This is the Aloha connection: Aloha assumes that our actions stem from a good place and with good intent. People buy in to the agreement that the positive path is the only path; the option of negativity which colors the alternate path toward bad mistakes is simply unacceptable.

The occurrence of bad mistakes become rare when you talk about the learning process associated with mistakes often enough so that everyone in your organization perceives first-time mistakes to be seeds of the future breakthroughs that they potentially can be. When mistakes and missteps happen, they are talked about openly, and as right-reason idea-experiments gone awry. The rest of the ‘ohana (team, to use the English word) is enlisted to help so the worth of the idea tested isn’t lost.

Bad mistakes are worthless. Good mistakes can be priceless.

Great managers cultivate an environment for good mistakes to flourish, and one in which bad mistakes are caught and not perpetuated. Adrian Savage was very perceptive in the comment he left for us, in that time can be the tricky variable:

There’s one other thing mistakes need: time. Time to understand what went wrong and learn from it. Too much speed is the enemy of learning.

When people are harrassed, by others or by their own mistaken values, and try to do everything quickly, there’s no time to take a risk or make a mistake. The result is a generation of managers who take the “safe option” because there isn’t space in their schedule to try new ways. Getting it done is all they have time for.

Adrian Savage

So how can managers create a safe environment for learning missteps – those good mistakes? I can’t think of any better way than talking about them, coaching people through them, and making some yourself visibly enough in that you demonstrate the learning behavior you want to happen in your organization.

In my last corporate, big company position, I had an orientation speech themed on mistakes being cool, and this is how it went. It was designed to do three things:

1) Help new employees embrace mistakes as necessary for learning to accelerate the training process in their first 90 days,

2) From day one, set the expectation of initiative and positivity versus hesitation and negativity, and

3) Serve as another way I could share our company values.

On paper, this looks like a rather long speech, however it goes quickly, and I wanted to share it with you because I have to say, my new employees loved it, and because they did, I never got tired of giving it. Their reactions were always favorable; they were pleasantly surprised. They relished the thought that if this was a talk story on mistakes, imagine the optimistic atmosphere waiting in the wings for all their working days to come with us. After this, their first Daily 5 Minutes was a cakewalk!

[As you read this, note that I didn’t say the Hawaiian value words when
giving my talk story: They are inserted here for the MWA student.]

Here, we think that mistakes are cool, and that they actually serve to help us be a better organization. I’ll explain why.

If you make a mistake, we figure you were trying to do something a bit outside your day-to-day routine and your normal comfort zone. You had a thought that gave you a compelling picture of how something could happen in a better way. Visionary thinking, and great initiative. In fact, pretty brave! (Alaka‘i)

We figure the whole process started because you had an idea about something, and you weren’t satisfied in letting it stew or escape as a passing idea. Nor were you willing to let your idea die. You made a personal decision to test it out (Kuleana). You owned your idea with wonderful trust in your capacity and belief in yourself. Wow! (Ho‘ohana)

When you admit to your mistake, we love that first you recognized your own very human-ness, and second that it was indeed a mistake (Ha‘aha‘a). We value that you didn’t continue down a faulty path or try to cover it up (Kuleana).

We really love when you have enough conviction about the potential of your original idea in that you try again, but you change it up so that you’ll succeed in the next go-round. You truly seek to learn from the process, and get better (Ho‘omau, ‘Ike loa).

Let’s say you fail the second time around. The way we look at it, you’ve made the concept of “failure” an evolution of sorts, for we’re no longer talking about a mistake, are we. We are talking about the intent to succeed with a potentially rich idea (KÅ«lia i ka nu‘u). We are taking about your purposefully creating your future instead of being satisfied with circumstance and happenstance (‘Imi ola). Now how cool is that?

Now let’s say you’re stuck, so you ask for help. You have to articulate your vision for others, and be willing to lead with the insights of your experience with this thus far (Alaka‘i). You have to be open-minded, and willing to let others enlist in your mission and make significant contributions, understanding that if they are to help you make this happen, it must be a win-win for everyone concerned (Lōkahi, Kākou). There’s some vulnerability involved here now, huh. You have to seek to understand and keep learning, as you simultaneously seek to be understood and maintain the integrity of your vision (Nānā i ke kumu).

You know what, even if on this journey, our ‘Ohana ends up completely changing your original idea, so that you barely recognize it in going for this win, even if in the excitement and energy which accompanies our capacity for learning we end up going down a completely different path, it’s a very cool thing. None of this would have happened, if you hadn’t made a mistake in the first place! (Aloha and unconditional acceptance)

Yessiree, mistakes are cool. I expect you to make a lot of them here in your first few weeks. Your mistakes will be good for you, and good for all of us. That’s why you’re here; we have faith in you, your ideas, and your capacity. We believe in you. (Kalā hiki ola; it is the dawning of a new day.)

Count them up: 14 exceptionally good values all within mistakes!

The timing factor hasn’t explicitly been spelled out, but your patience can come through loud and clear. We have to evaluate our experiences when we go through the debrief thought processes of self-reflection and analysis that accompany the making of a mistake. It’s applying Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline of effective learning organizations on a personal basis:

“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative proves of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.”

Being okay with our mistakes is to be okay with ourselves, and to be excited about our capacity for learning from them. Feeling mistakes are cool, opens the door wider to having an abundance mentality, and a willingness to assume leadership with our ideas.

In a day or so we’ll continue with Part 3, and how
Mistakes and trust-building are connected.


  1. says

    Roll up those sleeves: Mistakes and trust-building.

    Preface: This post is Part 3 of my Mistakes are Cool series: Mistakes and trust-building are connected. Part 1 is here: Mistakes are cool. Part 2 is here: Let’s Talk Story about GOOD Mistakes. From our book of the month

  2. Robert e. Deininger says

    Often it seems to me when a superior is talking with an employee the ”mistake” he or she makes is they give off the vibe that they are in fact superior, which over time will cost the company dearly, try to start every conversation so each feels equal, in the beginning…..did you ever notice how some men especially seem to get along very easily with children while others rarely are even said hello to by children…..if you watch that man you will at some time see him on his knees on the floor talking to the child, and the child seems to be eating every word as if it were from another child, this is because when the man got down there on his knees he was no longer a big person to whom the child had no connection, he was instead on equal footing with the Child and thus accepted into his world, this principal, Applies almost all the time with almost everyone……… Bob

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this Bob, for it is an excellent observation.
    I think the open-minded, equal footing stance is one where the “superior” portrays that he/she can learn from the mistake as well, and that the event called the “mistake” is in fact a golden opportunity for shared learning – like the discovery through the eyes of a child.
    We would all be well advised to consider how we can adopt this kind of open and equal demeanor in our interactions with others, for it comes up in many other scenarios as well. For instance between spouses, or between parent and teenager!