If mistakes are inevitable (and they are)..

.. and the thing that is most remembered about them over time is a creative, constructive and corrective response, then why the hell are we so scared to make them?

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol won them worldwide trust while British Petroleum were brought under intense scrutiny. Both these mistakes are about as large as they get. And, yet, they’re inevitable. Machines fail, humans make mistakes, and circumstances sometimes go against you.

Ignore the impulse to avoid them. You can’t. Ignore the impulse that says “Oh shucks, I am screwed and should cover that up.” That’s both useless and harmful in the long run. And, focus entirely on the response. In fact, take it a step forward and make it a point to use every response as a part of your mistake recovery practice regime.

And, once you’ve done that, share it with the world so other’s can learn to do that. If you don’t know how about doing that, write to me. We’ll anonymize it, share it, and have a good laugh. No embarrassment required. By reflecting on it and ensuring an appropriate response, we will have done as much possible to avoid making them again. That’s the best we can do.

Mistakes are how we get better. Mistakes are how we get made.

5 guidelines for being constructive

Here are 5 guidelines I have developed for being constructive over the years –

1. Listen a LOT more than you talk. At least 3x more. I won’t go on about the benefits of listening – just do it. And, when you do, try not to do it the way I do it and give people time to finish what they want to say. (I’m working on doing it right)

2. Quantity never equals quality. When you spend time with people, make sure it is as constructive as it possibly can be. It’s okay if it is less – let it be good.

3. If you sense yourself in a non-constructive mood, stop. Get out. Get some space. This is a critical move if you’re an introvert who needs to recharge. The other way to judge this is when you are in a low willpower state – lack of food and sleep can do this to you.

4. Only give your opinion to those who really want to hear it. Opinions are like backsides. Everyone loves airing them but it’s perhaps best not to do so in public. What you think is only valuable to people when they want to hear it. This can be extremely different if you are generally outspoken / used to expressing yourself.


5. Don’t discuss what to think, discuss how-to-think. Speak about how you’d approach a problem rather than your proposed solution. This is always valuable as it enables a generally constructive discussion how to approach problems.

Being constructive is a lot about managing your style. From my experience, you learn more by making mistakes than by watching others do it right. Watch for whether your conversations end constructively and think about what went right or wrong over time. You’re not going to get a 100% constructive hit rate and that’s okay. But, we can get better. As always, a touch of awareness and a touch of reflection followed by action can help us work magic.

Email and constructive communication

I was once part of a heated email chain a couple of years back. As with most heated email chains, this began with a misunderstanding which was only amplified with time. I was the junior-most member of the team and was more the by-stander who was being called on from time to time to produce one number or another.

At one point, our senior-most team member sent an email to a couple of us on one side of the argument that read something like this – STOP REPLYING TO THE EMAIL CHAIN. WE WILL TAKE THIS OFFLINE AND SORT THIS OUT.

He immediately set up some time with each of us, listened to us, focused on the next steps and  methodically worked his way through the issues. And sort it out we did.

Emails are good for a whole lot of things – sharing status updates, ensuring information is shared, asking questions and engaging in discussions, and setting up real life conversations. They are, however, not good for any communication that isn’t constructive and almost always make things worse. Deprived of context and facial expressions, we always assume the worst.

The learning for me was simple – the moment you sense an email thread going negative, take it offline. And, as my wise colleague would say, STOP.