Businesses have nothing to fear but fear itself

“Mistakes? Mistakes are nothing!”

So bellows Ludwig Von Beethoven to a dispassionate student in the film “Immortal Beloved.” His eruption wasn’t an apology for sloppiness or carelessness or lack of preparation. Such laziness was unforgivable to Beethoven. Rather, it was a plea for passion, boldness and risk-taking.

Beethoven was imploring his student to forget the step-by-step, note-by-note “directions” and let go, lose herself in the music and play with abandon — in short, to do all of the things we know to be contributive to peak or outstanding performance. Yet his student was so focused on technicalities, on “getting it right” and avoiding mistakes that her playing was stilted, joyless, uninspiring.

This same malaise is robbing many companies and their employees of an exciting, meaningful future. Awash in managers, bereft of leaders, too many companies have become constipated by a technocratic mindset that confuses efficiency for effectiveness, tool kits for craftsmanship, scapegoating for accountability, preventing errors and defects for delivering a superb product and experience to a customer. It is why the “Big 3” automakers, despite years of force-feeding the quality management Kool-Aid to their employees and suppliers, continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on product recalls and continue to lose market share, why 70 percent of firms that have embarked upon “re-engineering” have failed to reach their goals, and why companies and their employees endure round after round of shake-ups and job cuts, yet never seem to recapture their past levels of success.

The craziest part of all this is that we know better. Business lore is littered with failed fads aimed at preventing mistakes and over-controlling the everyday working lives of employees. However, even more ubiquitous are tales of whopping big mistakes (the ones based on passion and boldness, not the stupid, careless kind) that turned into magnificent success stories.

Think of the “failed” adhesive improvement project at 3M that led to Post-it Notes. Or the factory worker at Procter & Gamble who accidentally left a mixing machine running while at lunch, which added unwanted air into a batch of Ivory soap, causing it to float in water. Soon consumers began clamoring for the “floating soap.”

How about the Baltimore pharmacist who failed to get government approval to call his pigmented skin cream “medicated” and thus had to find a “cosmetic” use for his Cover Girl product? Or the 3M scientist who accidentally spilled a new synthetic rubber substance on an associate’s canvas shoe and noticed that as the shoe aged, it got dirty everywhere except for the spot where the spill occurred, thus birthing Scotchgard?

So before you invite hordes of Six-Sigma black-belts to descend upon your company like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, consider that it’s not mistakes you have to drive out of your business. It’s fear — the fear of making mistakes and the stilted, constrained, pedestrian thinking engendered by this fear.

Hire black-belts if you must, but use them to karate-chop second-guessers, flip finger-pointers, and put the sleeper hold on fear-mongers. Stop trying to meticulously document every step in a business process and start focusing on your desired outcomes. Get passionate about your goals and compassionate about your customers’ needs. Make mistakes. Make them fast. Fix them fast.

Not only are mistakes “nothing,” they may be the source of your greatest triumphs and accomplishments. Beethoven too “artsy” for you hard-nosed business folks? Try this quote from Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder of IBM:

“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure — or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you will find success.”

Dr. Tom Potterfield, former president of Velcro USA Inc., teaches at the Southern New Hampshire University School of Business and is president of Inner Circle of New Hampshire.

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