The final point that Jeff Pfeffer and I make in Hard Facts is about failure. We emphasize that is impossible to run an organization without making a lot of mistakes. Innovation always entails failure. Most new products and companies don’t survive. And if you want creativity without failure, you are living in a fool’s paradise. It is also impossible to learn something new without making mistakes. A scary thought, for example, because new surgeons have higher fatality rates than experienced surgeons – but new surgeons can only learn so much by reading, watching others, and practicing on cadavers. The only way to learn to do the real thing is to do the real thing. And every system breaks down at times (even Toyota is having some quality missteps lately) and even the best-trained people make mistakes at times.
Failure will never be eliminated, and so the best we can hope for from human beings and organizations is that they learn from their mistakes, that rather than making the same mistakes over and over again, they make new and different mistakes.
The upshot for Jeff Pfeffer and me is that, perhaps the single best diagnostic to see if an organization is innovating, learning, and capable of turning knowledge into action is “What happens when they make a mistake?” Stealing some ideas from research on medical errors, leaders and teams can “forgive and forget,” which may be temporarily comforting, but condemns people and systems to make the same mistakes over and over again – in the case of hospitals, this means you bury the dead (or close the incision) and don’t talk about it. Or you can remember who made mistakes, chase them down, humiliate them, and thus create climate of fear. In such situations, the game becomes avoiding the finger of blame rather than surfacing, understanding, and fixing mistakes (see Harvard’s Amy Edmondson’s wonderful research on drug treatment errors for evidence on this point). Or you can Forgive and Remember, which is not only the title of a great book by Charles Bosk, it is the philosophy that the best teams and organizations use. You forgive because it is impossible to run an organization without making mistakes, and pointing fingers and holding grudges creates a climate of fear. You remember – and talk about the mistakes openly –so people and the system can learn. And you remember so that, even though you have tried to retrain people and teach them, if some people keep making the same mistakes over and over again, then, well, they need to be moved to another kind of job.
This brings me to my recent episode with Amazon. As reported in an earlier post, I was having trouble with two of my books, where the wrong information kept appearing and my publishers and I were having trouble getting them to fix it. As I said, I wrote to email@example.com, as that is supposed to be the CEO’s email. I still don’t whether it was really him who answered, but I got an immediate concerned response and promise to look into it. Within 48 hours it was fixed and I got a detailed note from Mike Frazzini at Amazon expressing concern and apologizing, describing the steps they were taking to fix it, and inviting me to talk with him further if I’d like. I was really impressed. As I wrote to Mike, I know it is impossible to keep Amazon’s complex database running without making errors, but the best that any human organization – or human-being – can do is to respond to complaints and problems in a non-defensive way, and try to learn from them. They passed our “What happens when they make a mistake” test with flying colors. The upshot of this is that I am even a bigger fan of Amazon then when this whole episode started – plus I wish that Jeff Bezo’s was CEO of my cell phone company!