Amanda Lannert: How to thrive on mistakes Featured

2:51pm EDT July 5, 2011
Amanda Lannert, president, The Jellyvision Lab Inc. Amanda Lannert, president, The Jellyvision Lab Inc.

Last Wednesday, I made a mistake. It was a simple error, but one that had pretty embarrassing consequences. The Jellyvision Lab is beefing up our financial controls, so I wanted to get my hands dirty in our online payroll system during our period of transition. The first week that I was responsible for payroll, I overlooked that submissions are due at 4 p.m., not the end of the day. For the first time in 14.5 years, Jellyvision had blown a payroll and people were going to be paid late (unacceptable) or be given a printed check they’d have to manually deposit (also unacceptable, to me). And it was squarely and solely my fault.

In a last ditch effort for clemency, I called the CEO of our payroll provider at 6:20 p.m. Seven minutes later, he called me back from his cell phone, because he was personally marching over to customer service to see that my case was handled promptly. Long story short: They saved the day — payroll went out on time and Jellyvision staff was none the wiser (until now). 

But there’s more to the silver lining. My payroll gaffe got me thinking about business mistakes in general. We’re all working harder, faster, pushing the boundaries of technology and people to their limits and meanwhile giving ourselves increasingly compressed deadlines. Hanging on the wall at Facebook is the following quote: “Done is better than perfect.” Accordingly, mistakes are going to happen. 

Perhaps we’re missing a huge opportunity if we don’t figure out how to treat mistakes as a matter of course and figure out how we respond to, manage and improve from them. With humility, I offer the following suggestions for turning business mistakes into ingredients for a stronger company:

Get over the fear. Everyone makes mistakes. We just aren’t robots (yet). We are going to make mistakes. Some of them are going to be embarrassing and we will want to hide under our desks and call our mothers. But if we get over the fear of imperfection, we’ll be able to recover more quickly.

Transparency prevents bigger problems. If you make a mistake, say you’re sorry and take full responsibility for it. I didn’t enjoy telling my finance director that I’d dropped the ball on payroll. But the fact is, a business mistake, like a business success, is about the business and not about ego. The goal was to fix the mistake. That’s easier to do when you’ve got smart people helping you, which they can’t do if you don’t come clean. Fess up, be a good role model in demonstrating accountability and handle your mess.

Treat each situation with empathy and appropriate urgency. One of the reasons I’m so smitten with the way our payroll provider handled the situation is that they seemed to feel my pain. The company moved aggressively, and everyone owned the problem even though it was my mistake not the payroll provider’s. Moreover, I still have seen countless examples of deft handling of a misstep leading to greater relationships and more trust than before.

Share your war stories so they don’t happen again.  Jellyvision revamped its internal processes so that payroll is now due by end of day Tuesday instead of Wednesday. A small detail, but one that will fundamentally prevent this error in the future, which is my consolation prize.

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service.  Amanda has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local start ups and often waves to people she doesn’t even know on the street just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, birthed a gaggle of daughters and is known to award limitless slabs of grilled meats to coworkers who grow ironic mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606 x116.