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Error culture in companies - Why mistakes are your friends

You don't recognize winners by how they win, but by how they lose. Most winners have probably failed more often than losers ever tried.

Because to regard mistakes exclusively as evil is evidence of a rigid mindset, which is diametrically opposed to an agile mindset! 

Mistakes are friends you develop with. You just have to learn how to use them properly! 

Error culture in companies - The biggest mistake in dealing with errors

Still afraid of mistakes? Do not you need! Because it is only fear of mistakes that makes mistakes so bad! And errors cannot be completely avoided anyway. That's a good thing - because you can learn from mistakes.

Errors only become problematic when we hide and suppress them for fear of negative consequences, instead of immediately communicating and correcting them transparently. Unfortunately, in practice, companies often contribute to unhealthy handling of mistakes.

Before we go any deeper, a quick note. In two weeks we will hold a Free webinar on "Culture in agile transformation: the 5 most important success factors" - with 11 international experts as our guests! You can find more information in the teaser video below. 

If that sounds interesting, check out the Project Scagile website for more information - you can also register for free.

By hiding mistakes, a slip that may originally have been just a little bit can turn into a really big problem over time. Imagine that you have a number twister when entering data. But you don't say anything, you just don't dare. And so every subsequent calculation is carried out with this wrong number. Until nothing is right at the end. But you are silent. And the inner pressure increases and you find no relief. By hiding mistakes, we take away from ourselves and others the opportunity to learn from these mistakes. 

So stigmatizing, ignoring and concealing mistakes is obviously a very bad idea! 

Learn from mistakes as part of the corporate culture

You learn from mistakes. This is how it is said in general. But you actually learn better from mistakes - better than from the perfect example! A study (Joung, Hesketh & Neal, 2006) has shown that we learn faster using “worst case scenarios”. And how exactly do you learn from mistakes? 

  1. If you make a mistake, you should admit it as soon as possible.
  2. Then you should look at the behavior and circumstances that led to this error occurring.
  3. And finally make sure that the critical behavior and circumstances are changed, if possible, so that this error will not happen again in the future.

This "permanent, non-stop sequence of small improvements of all operational elements including all employees, managers and the management" means in Japan "Kaizen”And is also seen as crucial for successful quality management in the West. 

Error culture in companies - actively allowing the right mistakes 

So that we can actively allow the right mistakes, we have to create a healthy error culture in our team. For this we should (the agile value) Reward courage instead of sanctioning mistakes. This is the only way we can take calculated risks without which we cannot develop further - as a company, as a team and as a person. 

The culture of error in companies or organizations is loud Elke M. Schüttelkopf  from the following three pillars:

The norms and values specify how errors and their consequences are dealt with. However, appropriate skills of the organization members are also required for proper handling. This requires both mental, emotional, social and methodological skills. 

But neither norms and values, nor competencies can have an effect if there is a lack of the appropriate instruments. The amount and type of methods, techniques and instruments that are available for the organization members to implement the desired handling of errors is decisive. 

A balanced combination of the three pillars is important for a healthy error culture in companies. Practical tip: If there is still a problem with your error culture or you just want to change something, then the three pillars offer a good starting point for this.

Basic requirement for a positive error culture in companies

The basic requirement for such a culture is psychological safety, or this important factor for successful teamwork is further strengthened by an agile error culture in companies. There is also a certain tolerance for uncertainty embedded in it. This means being able to endure that there are many factors in the work process that cannot be predicted exactly. 

If there is sufficient psychological security, an “agile error culture” in companies (see diagram) proceeds as follows. Let us recall the example with the number rotator to illustrate. First of all you need to be aware of errors. You have to be aware that mistakes can happen and recognize them. When entering a lot of data there is a good chance that something will be swapped. With this knowledge in mind, you can pay special attention to potential sticking points and hopefully recognize the error. The error acceptance then follows. You accept that you made a mistake. It can happen that you type a number incorrectly. It is crucial to separate the factual level from the emotional level: only those who do not despair of their mistakes in grief and who do not seriously question their own competence can emerge strengthened from an error. Because just because you twist a number, you are of course not incompetent in your field! 

The correct handling of errors as part of the corporate culture

The next step is neutral error communication. The error is reported factually here. Be honest: “I typed a number incorrectly. Therefore the subsequent invoice is incorrect. I just noticed it and wanted to pass it on directly. ” Any kind of exuberant emotions and blame are out of place here. 

This goes hand in hand with freedom from sanctions! Employees (and executives as well) need to be sure that they have no fear of punishment if they report a mistake. "It's ok that you made a mistake, good thing that you let me know immediately!" Because punishing mistakes does not lead to fewer mistakes, but only to more hidden mistakes. As is well known, this can escalate! 

Now that all the cards are on the table, we look together to see how the error occurred and what can be changed to avoid making the same error again. For example, a small team can always check each other's entries. Or limit the time for how long someone transfers data in a row in order to avoid careless mistakes caused by fatigue. These changes in behavior and or circumstances are then optimally implemented. 

But before changes can occur, you first have to know your status quo. Team retro tools can even help you with both. For this purpose, the Echometer tool asks the employees the following questions, for example, to start a bottom-up reflection process:

  • "We encourage open handling of mistakes in a team." 
  • “Even negative events can be communicated transparently in our team”
  • "You can take risks in my team."

Practical exercises:

So that our newly acquired knowledge about error culture in companies does not just remain gray theory, we have two exercises for you:  

1. Error retro

With a small step you can also start as part of a team retrospective: In order to put the culture of error in the focus of a retro, the following questions are available: 

  • Each one for itself: Which mistake or which “unnecessary work” from the last sprint would you definitely want to save yourself in the future?
  • Then the question in the round: From all the points mentioned, what can we learn from it as a team? How could you anticipate the mistakes or “unnecessary” work mentioned in advance and what can be done to prevent them?

2. FuckUp Talk

Just talk about the soul, which bucks you have already shot and which carts you have already driven to the wall with Karacho. That makes it easier, more amusing and enriching! At a FuckUp Talk, you not only tell others what you screwed up, but also what you could learn from it, perhaps quite unexpectedly, and how you got back on your feet. 

However, a FuckUp Talk is not a spontaneous stand-up event and requires a lot of logistical and content planning. At best, the lecturers should have thought through and written down their fault history beforehand.   

FuckUp Talks are now so popular that in many cities there are so-called FuckUp Nights, in which brave doers from employees to CEOs present their failure on the big stage. By the way, this also shared in 2016 Christian Lindner with the world the decline of his youth start-up. A FuckUp Night could also be a destination for the next company outing 🙂

Do you also come from the Münsterland area? If you are interested, you will find further information on such events here Münster and Bielefeld.

Finally, a small hint... I am repeating myself because I can really recommend it:

In two weeks there will be a Free webinar on "Culture in agile transformation: the 5 most important success factors" - with 11 international experts as our guests! You can find more information in the teaser video below. 

If that sounds interesting, check out the Project Scagile website for more information - you can also register for free.


Joung, W., Hesketh, B., & Neal, A. (2006). Using “war stories” to train for adaptive performance: Is it better to learn from error or success ?. Applied psychology, 55(2), 282-302.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350.

Edmondson, A. & Mogelof, JP (2005). Explaining Psychological Safety in Innovation Teams: Organizational Culture, Team Dynamics, or Personality? In Thompson, L. & Choi, H.-S. (Eds.), Creativity and Innovation in Organizational Teams. New York: Psychology Press.

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