From “dismissed” to error culture?

Guest contribution by | 04.02.2019

Again and again we talk about the necessity of an error culture in companies, but what do we actually mean by this? Do we really mean mistakes that can be made by human hands? Is something really supposed to go wrong? Or do we want to motivate employees to take risks and make mistakes? Who tells us when we made a mistake? Do we risk more because of the lack of clear rules? Who in turn decides what is irrevocable and right?

Culture, in the broadest sense, describes everything that a person produces in a self-designing way.” So the supposedly simple introduction to the definition of “culture” in Wikipedia Germany. At first that sounds completely positive. But mistakes are negative in our society from the beginning.  And now both things should be brought together to achieve “more”? 

How do we learn what a mistake is?

The obvious assessment of wrong and right begins with the first educational measures. We don’t let our children touch the hot plate so that they know whether it is wrong or right. We know about this mistake and therefore have rules. In the primary school there are coloured stamps for the zero error dictation, later the best grade for the zero error math test. There is an honorary certificate for the perfect long jump and the player who scores the most goals is chosen by the team. “Don’t step out of line” – that’s what our entire education system is designed for. The slow steps towards inclusion show how difficult it is not to sort people with supposed “mistakes” out of the system at an early stage. We live in a society in which people are measured by their achievements and successes and condemned for their defeats.

And now – at an advanced age and after all this imprinting – we are suddenly supposed to make mistakes, unfold and try ourselves out?

Errors in job

When we talk about errors in the work context, we usually mean human errors. Mr X has again forgotten to save something, Mrs Y has sent the wrong invoice and Mr Z has missed a deadline. These are all classic “mistakes”. One will probably say that it is not bad at first sight – these “little mistakes” happen every day in daily business. Exactly, at first glance these are not big mistakes. But it’s the ones that shouldn’t happen because they’re

a. do not bring the company anywhere further,
b. results from carelessness and could have been avoided due to our exposure values,
c. are harmful to business. If a file is not saved and you no longer have access to the data, this is damaging to your business. If a deadline for a large project is not met and this results in costs for suppliers and customers, this is also damaging.

So what do we mean by a culture of error?

And another objection: Can/must it exist in every industry?

If a surgeon makes a mistake while operating an open heart, but has never made a mistake in his entire career – do we say ” it can happen – keep going”? The example may not be suitable for everyone, but regardless of that: yes, it makes a difference.

Exactly such examples show that new work must not indiscriminately raise buzzwords and new methods to the postulate of believing that a new corporate culture has been created. Simply proclaiming a culture of error is just as pointless as setting up a foosball table: it doesn’t change anything about the basic attitudes.

What happens in a company when the management changes and the child of the boss takes over the management, although he has no idea of the business and management? What happens if he just spends good money and invests in markets that don’t fit the company? If he ignores the advice of the employees, if he prefers to play against all the rules and if he wants to tackle everything a little more courageously?  One year later: insolvency. 200 employees lose their jobs and stand on the street, their livelihoods lost. At that moment, even the entrepreneur is surgeon with responsibility for human lives.

Admittedly, here we have just exaggerated two extreme examples.

Test environment & innovation culture

Not for nothing do corporations afford think tanks, incubators or labs in which they test new technologies, new working methods and innovations. Protected spaces that allow errors to occur without affecting the company as a whole. Is that better than the surgery on a living object? Do guinea pigs and white mice work in these germ cells? Not quite as extreme perhaps, but it shows how carefully we (have to) deal with this culture of errors. However, the test environment only helps to a limited extent because the step from the laboratory to the real working world cannot be carried out without risk – at some point courage and the possibility of failure have to be calculated in order to enable success and progress.

Apart from the fact that many medium-sized companies cannot afford a think tank for lack of resources, it often takes too long to perfect every new project before it can be tested on the market and on the customer. Digitalisation also forces us to make mistakes due to speed and complexity. It forces us to make mistakes and become more risk-aware – otherwise, for example, no financial resources would be released for the necessary equipment, optimisation or resources.

Mistake, error, failure, lapse …

We don’t want to get lost in linguistic trifles – surprisingly, we often deal with our own language INCORRECTLY – we use all the many possible terms synonymously – even with “permission” by the Duden. In a foreign language we often get to know the subtleties between terms better – because in English, for example, we may know that “mistake” indicates one should have known better and “error” happened due to ignorance.

We have to take a close look at what we allow and what we want to achieve with it. Error culture doesn’t mean that much goes wrong and it doesn’t mean a free ticket for blindness, scandal, lack of agreement and preparation. It demands the courage to try something new and to take the risk of failing. But with respect to tried and tested processes. Under no circumstances should you make the same mistake more than once. Then you also stagnate. And the error culture demands an examination of the consequences of errors – temporally, financially, organisationally. The interpretation of a negative event is the key to being able to continue to live happily with it, to learn from it and to develop new attempts. Teams need to know what happens when they fail to create a trusting environment. Sort of an established laboratory environment.

Learn to do it right?

What we actually need is a learning culture – learning is about making mistakes, practicing, training and trying to improve. You invent new processes and ways of working for yourself. This is exactly the reason why an AI makes as many mistakes as we do – because it was developed by people and trained by us. But it doesn’t do one thing: careless mistakes due to negligence. It can’ t, because it only learns within the framework of the given possibilities. Here is our chance. We can learn in new ways, “out of the box”, creatively. We can fundamentally redesign, reject and reinvent processes. Trusting that we can do this in the interests of the company and its success.

And that would be our wish for the company: A learning culture that gives time to try out our own learning patterns and behaviour. So that we can create something new: our corporate culture.

PS: Unfortunately, there is no definition that really helps us with either learning or corporate culture – we will probably have to work on it individually and permanently for each of us …



Julia Collard and Sven Schnitzler have published some more posts in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Talent Management ≠ Human Resources Development

Talent Management ≠ Human Resources Development

t2informatik Blog: The fairy tale of the eye level

The fairy tale of the eye level

t2informatik Blog: Recruiting competencies

Recruiting competencies

Julia Collard & Sven Schnitzler
Julia Collard & Sven Schnitzler

Julia Collard and Sven Schnitzler are Doppel[t]spitze. Networking & learning and the personal and virtual exchange of knowledge are their passions. As knowledge networkers, they make opinions, people, companies and their work visible. Innovative work means that they get by without power games & competitive thinking and that individual performance, efforts and ideas are in the foreground.

Dual leadership means that Julia and Sven work in tandem in their agency to develop and implement innovative and practical online marketing concepts. A clear marketing strategy is the key to success. The focus is always on people and their stories. “Share your story” can say so much – stories connect people, companies and departments. They make people visible and have an impact. This is how Julia & Sven live marketing.