February 2011Leadership

Brilliant Mistakes: To Err is Human, But Can It Also be Divine?

Brilliant Mistakes

When the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was faced with a Congressional mandate requiring that by 2015, one-third of all military ground vehicles be unmanned, it needed to develop robot vehicles — quickly. But instead of enlisting the help of the world's most knowledgeable experts, DARPA sought the help of amateurs.

The Agency sponsored a robot vehicle race in the California desert with a one million dollar prize. It ended with the competitors barely inching off the starting line. But DARPA didn't admit defeat and turn to the experts. The "mistake" revealed flaws in 13 different approaches, helping builders to quickly zero in on designs that would succeed. The following year, the Agency offered two million dollars to the winner of a 132-mile race in Nevada. Five vehicles completed the course.

Paul Schoemaker, adjunct professor of marketing and an academic director of the Executive Education program Critical Thinking: Real-World Real-Time Decisions, explains: "DARPA set the stage for rapid success by deliberately encouraging a high failure rate. When they're done right, mistakes are a powerful way to accelerate learning and increase competitiveness." Yet, says Schoemaker, most executives remain highly resistant to making mistakes, believing there is nothing to gain from them, and much to lose.

One reason for this resistance is the biases we bring to intelligence gathering. Schoemaker notes, "We tend to favor data that support our beliefs, embracing confirming evidence and ignoring alternative information. The bias can lead to an overreliance on feedback that is either incomplete or misleading, which can result in missed opportunities that give an advantage to the competition."

Mistakes Speed Learning

Making mistakes, as illustrated by the DARPA example, can sometimes be the fastest way to solve a problem. In Critical Thinking, Schoemaker asks participants to find the underlying pattern in a sequence of three numbers (2, 4, 6). The participants are allowed to propose alternative sets of three numbers and ask whether they fit the pattern.

Most formulate a preliminary hypothesis — for 2, 4, 6, they might guess the pattern is ascending, adjacent, even numbers. But to test their ideas, they typically propose sequences that fit their rules, such as 10, 12, 14 and 120, 122, 124. After three successful tests, the participants usually state with great confidence that the "ascending, adjacent even numbers" hypothesis is correct. But they are wrong.

Participants who choose numbers that don't fit the hypothesis (for example -10, 0, 523) are likely to discover more quickly than their colleagues that the real pattern is any ascending sequence. In the experiment, the pattern is rarely uncovered unless subjects are willing to make deliberate mistakes by testing numbers that violate their hypotheses.

Says Schoemaker, "Whenever there are few data points, the chances are low that the first guess about how they fit together will be correct. The fastest way to find the pattern is to try many disconfirming tests. Yet the majority of business decisions are based on limited data. Executives tend to test only to confirm hypotheses, rather than to make deliberate mistakes."

Choosing an Intentional Mistake

Schoemaker stresses, "Deliberate mistakes have tremendous value when decisions are made repeatedly or in environments of rapid change and complexity in which old assumptions may become less valid. But before you make a deliberate mistake, choose wisely. Begin by listing the deeply held assumptions you and your organization hold in terms of running your business. Focus on those that lie at the core of the organization in areas including strategy, operations, marketing, finance, legal matters, IT, and human resources.

"Then, rank those assumptions. Ask a number of managers to rate the following statements on a scale of 1 (not true) to 7 (very true). Those with higher scores are most likely to benefit from a strategy of intentional mistakes." 

  • The potential benefit of the experiment relative to its cost is high.
  • We make this decision repeatedly.
  • The business conditions surrounding this issue have changed.
  • This is a complex problem to be solved analytically.
  • Our experience base with this assumption is limited.

Mistakes can enlarge our range of experience, leading us to do things we ordinarily wouldn't do, and thus expose us to feedback that we wouldn't otherwise receive. In organizations, making deliberate mistakes can help uncover superior ways of doing business, lead to innovations, and increase competitive advantage.

Yet executives face a conundrum: they dislike mistakes (and avoid and deny them), even though mistakes are sometimes the only way to get ahead. Schoemaker recently told Critical Thinking participants, "Mistakes create opportunities if we know how to use them. They can be vital portals to discovery. The biggest error you can make is not to fully appreciate the power of mistakes and learn from them."