How to make mistakes

“Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”


Henry J Ford c.1919 © Library of Congress

Henry Ford, the man who this quote is attributed to, made several unsuccessful attempts at an affordable mass-produced automobile before the Model T. It was Ford’s ability to identify lessons and learn from his failures that were a vital part of his success.

From his early failures he went on to make numerous technical and business innovations that changed the world.

But is dealing positively with mistakes a personal trait, or does it go much deeper than that?

I would argue that organisations, not just individuals, can turn making mistakes into an opportunity for advancement as much as it is a threat.

I have never worked with an organisation that doesn’t make mistakes, but I have seen many that have no process for dealing with them and make the same mistakes again and again.

When as an Army officer I worked at a NATO unit, I was introduced to the ‘Lessons Identified / Lessons Learned’ process. This is a process that allowed an enormous organisation to identify, analyse and remedy everything from problems with dialling codes to life-affecting tactical mistakes on the battlefield relatively quickly. This ultimately saved lives and improved the ‘combat effectiveness’ of NATO units on operations.

It has always surprised me that if an organisation as large and complex as NATO can make mistakes useful, why so many smaller and simpler organisations struggle to deal properly with the inevitable mistakes that are going to happen. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to highlight the applicable stages of the ‘Lessons Identified / Lessons Learned’ process that would be helpful in commercial organisations.


A culture of tolerance needs to be in place at all levels of leadership. Mistakes will happen and how you deal with them individually and organisationally will have a massive effect on how your people respond. You must show that you are approachable, and appreciate bad news early rather than as a surprise later on.

You must set and espouse your level of risk tolerance. It will rarely be set at zero so think about how much risk you are willing to let people take and communicate it clearly along with the checks and balances you need to implement. Your team needs to feel ‘psychologically safe’ to take informed risks, and to report back when things go wrong.

It is often at the lower levels of your organisation that critical mistakes can be identified and changed….or covered up until they lead to a disaster. Think Kweku Adoboli at UBS or Nick Leeson at Barings; both being examples of poor leadership and management surrounding risk and mistakes.

Lessons Identified – Observation and Analysis

A ‘lesson identified’ or LI is a mature observation of something that can, or is going wrong. It is made up of an initial observation followed up by analysis. All observations should be encouraged and from all levels of seniority even if on analysis they lead to nothing.

Let me take the example of pants. In Afghanistan, it was identified that many soldiers were receiving injuries in their pelvic area from shrapnel and blast waves. The problem was documented by soldiers and medics on the ground and it became clear that procedures needed to be updated to deal with this. Analysts looked at the root causes of the problem  and concluded that the types of explosion soldiers were getting caught up in had changed leading to more pelvic injuries.

Although protection was already worn in other vulnerable areas such as the head and chest, the pelvis was currently protected by little more than pants. The analysts therefore identified that more needed to be done to protect the pelvic region and that this was a problem for those that supplied personal clothing and equipment to soldiers.

Photo by Sgt Andy Reddy © Crown Media 2016

Remedial Action

So we now have a lesson identified.  That is we have identified remedial actions that need to be taken and an area of the organisation that needs to deal with it.

We then move into a phase of remedial action. The first thing that needs to happen is that the leadership needs to endorse the remedial actions. They must satisfy themselves that the lesson identified is proven enough to warrant committing resources or time to addressing.

If they are satisfied, they must then formally task an individual or team to take the required action. Going back to our pants example, a senior commander was able to allocate resources to the relevant agency that provides personal protective equipment to soldiers. He was also able to stipulate the priority and time constraints. As this LI dealt with a frequent occurrence and affected the wellbeing of soldiers, it was given suitably heave endorsement and resourcing along with a tight timeline.

Implementation and Monitoring

Following endorsement the body tasked with the remedial action needs to put in place a plan and implement it. Regular progress reports then need to be raised to the leaders that endorsed the programme so that they can monitor progress. With our example, improvements to protective underwear were made including the issue to soldiers of ‘bomb pants’ that helped absorb shrapnel and blast waves from explosions.


The only way that an organisation can actually conclude that remedial action has been successful is through some form of validation process. In Afghanistan, the roll out of bomb pants led to a documented decrease in the number and seriousness of pelvic injuries caused by blasts. It was at this stage that the Lesson Identified was considered a Lesson Learned (LL).

Lessons Learned

With remedial action complete and validation concluded, the lesson learned still needs leadership attention. Dissemination of information is crucial if the LL is to be taken on board. If a soldier doesn’t understand why he suddenly has to walk around Helmand Province with a giant green nappy on, he may be inclined not to. Just as in business, a decision made with the best intentions at the highest level may get lost in translation if not communicated properly throughout the organisation.

With ‘bomb pants’ their necessity was explained during training, at commanders’ briefings and through publications. It was worked into standard tactics, techniques and procedures and became a ‘norm’ in a matter of months.

The process doesn’t end there however. Usually, the LI/LL process will have uncovered areas for further study or analysis. With our example, although new underwear helped reduce the impact of the observed problem, it only went a small way to improving casualty rates. Further analysis of vehicle armour, personal equipment and tactics were all needed to improve capability further.


Putting in place and driving forward a process for dealing with mistakes may just be the smartest thing you do as a leader.

Sharing of mistakes and how they are rectified should be at the root of any such process. It doesn’t have to be cumbersome and bureaucratic – you must take into account the size and pace of business when deciding on the best procedures.

In short, any process that gets people from different parts of the organisation sharing what has gone wrong and how they have dealt with it is useful. If you can wrap around it the necessary governance to make sure remedial action is quick and effective, and best practice is adopted across teams, you are on to a winner.

A starting point would be the creation of a Lessons Identified / Lessons Learned database that is reviewed monthly by senior leadership and relevant department heads. If any part of the organisation is never adding mistakes, it is a sure sign that they are either not striving for success or they are not documenting their errors very well.


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