Test Your Ability to Make Brilliant Mistakes

Consider the last time you tried something new: acquiring a language, learning a new sport or starting a company. Did you make errors along the way? Did those errors help or hinder progress toward your goal?

The path from insight to discovery is seldom a straight line. Most groundbreaking achievements represent long, meandering paths of misjudgments and false turns. Indeed, our very existence relies on the error mechanism of random mutation.

But it isn’t enough just to accept that mistakes are part of progress. We can do better than simply rely on random error to eventually point the way. We can, and should, learn to be strategic about the errors we allow.

To innovate, you must take risks. It’s possible to create a practical plan for separating destructive from constructive mistakes and for learning to make more of the brilliant kind. By exploring how to access mistakes for their learning potential, you can challenge cherished assumptions and improve your future prospects. There are times when it is worthwhile to make mistakes on purpose in the spirit of challenging false beliefs and accelerating learning. It’s important to accept that you are prone to errors, to embrace this quality, and to milk it for all of its evolutionary and learning potential.

How ready are you to do so?

Answer the following questions honestly. Score yourself on the following scale: 1 = definitely no; 4 = to some extent; 7 = definitely yes.

1. Do you think that many of your crucial beliefs about your business may be wrong?

2. Did you ever do something against your better judgment just to see what would happen?

3. Have you ever given an award to someone who tried something new that did not work?

4. When confronted with puzzling data, do you naturally insist on multiple explanations?

5. Are you viewed as an innovator in your field—as someone who challenges received wisdom?

6. Have you systematically tried to identify your implicit business assumptions?

7. Are you tolerant of mavericks—that is, credible people who hold unusual or contrarian views?

8. Do you value a learning culture in addition to a performance culture?

9. Has your industry seen disruptive changes from new business models?

10. Has past success made you complacent or even arrogant?

The higher your total score, the more ready you are to implement a strategy of deliberate mistakes. If your score is very high (greater than 60), you may already be taking calculated risks. If your score is low (less than 30), you need to consider whether you are missing good learning opportunities.

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, from Wharton Digital Press.


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