What Are Deliberate Mistakes in Management?
It may be hard to imagine a business leader greenlighting a project that may potentially fail, but it’s not as wild an idea as you might think. In fact, failure has—and can—produce winning results.
The key to finding business success through failure can be by making “deliberate mistakes,” according to Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther in “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes” published in the Harvard Business Review. They offer this example:1
“Before the breakup of the Bell System, U.S. telephone companies were permitted by law to ask for security deposits from a small percentage of subscribers. The companies used statistical models to decide which customers were most likely to pay their bills late and thus should be charged a deposit, but no one knew whether the models were right,” they explain.1
“So, the Bell companies made a deliberate mistake. They asked for no deposit from nearly 100,000 new customers randomly selected from among those who were considered high risks. Surprisingly, quite a few paid their bills on time. As a result, the companies instituted a smarter screening strategy, which added millions to the Bell System’s bottom line.”1
Of course, not all deliberate mistakes result in an increase to the bottom line, or at least not immediately. But what making deliberate mistakes can do, as in the Bell example, is to uncover unexpected ways of doing business.
“Many managers recognize the value of experimentation, but they usually design experiments to confirm their initial assumptions. … Experiments of this type aren’t deliberate mistakes. True deliberate mistakes are expected, on the basis of current assumptions, to fail … But if such a mistake unexpectedly succeeds, then it has undermined at least one current assumption (and, often, more). That is what creates opportunities for profitable learning,” the authors say.
Finding Innovation Through Failure
When there are failures, through a deliberate mistake or other circumstance, leaders should look at them as “portals of discovery” rather than setbacks, Schoemaker says.2
The colorful pads of sticky notes you may have on your desk are a classic example of a failure that spawned a surprising new product line.
While trying to develop stronger adhesives for 3M, scientist Spencer Silver discovered just the opposite—a substance that was sticky but impermanent. Some might have labeled this a failure and filed it away. But Silver kept looking for a way to use this adhesive and through a fateful partnership with Art Fry, another 3M scientist, Press ‘n Peel notes were born. They’re now branded as Post-it Notes, “a product nobody thought they needed until they did,” according to Silver.3
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