In fact, in a well-led organization, mistakes are usually manifest when hard-charging team members try new things, innovate and push the envelope. In those organizations, rarely are mistakes some sinister plot to squander resources.
These employees are good people, people who want to succeed, people who want to be a part of something special.
All thrust and no vector
In my early days in the Air Force as a young fighter pilot, I was described as having all thrust and no vector. Simply put, my enthusiasm was not reinforced by a commensurate level of experience or internal direction. One of my first leaders brought me into his office, sat me down and then conveyed his philosophy to me, using a football game as an analogy.
I was starting on my own 20-yard line and my goal was to score a touchdown. The sidelines of the field represented the boundaries. If I willfully went outside of the boundaries, I was committing a major violation or a crime.
However, in my quest to score a touchdown, he encouraged me to use the entire field. I could roam from side to side and make mistakes as long as I stayed on the field of play.
It was my responsibility to know where the sidelines were. He said, “There is a difference between making a mistake and a committing a crime.” I cannot tell you how many times I have visualized that playing field in my military and business careers.
The key for me as the consumer of this newfound knowledge was to understand the difference between making a mistake and committing a crime. It is a simple concept that is rarely internalized in the world of business.
Too often within an organization, the perception is that your first mistake will be your last; therefore, no one is willing to accept any level of risk and this stifles innovation.
In the military, this was simple. The regulations formed clear and unambiguous guidelines. If you broke the regulations, you were committing a crime.
In the business world, it isn’t always so easy. Here are some things you can do as a leader to help your team know where the sidelines are.
- Define the sidelines. Clearly state, in writing, company policies that define the realm of good conduct and acceptable business practices. Utilize your employee handbook as a place to distribute and maintain your company standards for acceptable business practices.
- Reinforce guidelines. Use formal and informal training sessions to help your team members internalize how the policies work on a day-to-day basis so there is no ambiguity.
- Debrief mistakes. When a mistake occurs, treat it as a learning point and let the lessons permeate the organization. Encourage a nonretribution culture where mistakes are discussed openly so they will not be repeated, not just for the individual but for the team.
- Keep a corporate diary. Keep a record of successes and failures in a continuity book so you develop a resource of collective corporate knowledge. This is best done on a job-by-job basis, so that as one person enters a job that has been vacated, the new person doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel but can try to improve on what has been done previously.
- Deal with crimes with consistency. Any actions outside the defined boundaries must be addressed quickly, fairly and consistently. Failure to do so will become a cancer within the organization.
Go for it
If you push your team to perform to its fullest potential without fear of retribution for mistakes, your organization will discover new and innovative ways to win in business. Your clear communication and reinforcement of where the sidelines are will give you confidence that your team will achieve results without compromising ethics.
The upside is huge when your team isn’t afraid to go for it.
Marty “Opus” Richard is COO of Fighter Associates LLC. Reach him at email@example.com.