Significant insights for decision makers

All mistakes are not created equal; it is possible to design for brilliant mistakes – those that accelerate learning and lead to breakthrough innovation – and to avoid tragic ones, according to Paul Schoemaker in his book Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure. Some mistakes have high cost and offer little learning value, but others cost little and produce deep valuable insight. Those are the ones which need to be embraced and fostered.

Some of the insights contained in the book:

  • To learn from mistakes, it is important to separate the decision process (which you control) from the outcomes (which are usually influenced by external factors
  • Humans have a tendency to seek confirming evidence, whereas the whole truth can often only be discovered by deliberately seeking disconfirming evidence
  • To make better decisions, we must adopt a humble view on how much we know about the world around us; we must frequently challenge and test potentially outdated assumptions
  • Organizations should identify their assumptions and deliberately set up experiments to challenge some of them where there is low risk and high potential gain
  • It is wise to establish a varied portfolio of potential failures to increase the chances of some turning out to be brilliant mistakes

While I do not particularly like the term “brilliant mistakes”, I found the author’s arguments persuasive. Beneficial innovations can only arise as a result of doing something differently, and that usually involves challenging the established wisdom of departing from the established procedures. Often such deviations will be based on the contrarian “hunch” of an individual and so are deliberate although established wisdom might view them as mistakes. This book is suitable for leaders of all types of organizations, not just those who aim to be innovators, because all organizations benefit from a decision-making process that takes into account the role of mistakes.

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