What error distinguishes you?

Guest contribution by | 03.03.2022

“What error distinguishes you?”

This question comes from the Swiss psychologist Verena Kast. She asks it as part of her lecture series on crisis and change¹ and I find it very irritating. In recent years we (by “we” I mean my consultant bubble) have been trying to shape a culture in which failures are seen as learning opportunities. And even before that time there was the well-known statement that mistakes are only annoying and even stupid when we make them more than once. But errors that make me stand out? How does that work? Where is the learning in that? Don’t I then look for my own stupidity and if I already know it, why shouldn’t I be able to change it for the better? Questions upon questions that led me to this reflection on my concept of error culture and error tolerance.

What actually is this so-called error culture?

In my articles on uncertainty and in our workshops, we make it clear that errors are learned from. In uncertainty they are even necessary², because options for action have to be tried out. Every “trial run” brings knowledge, regardless of whether it brings the problem closer to a solution or not, i.e. whether it turns out to be a “mistake”. In the long run, this will only succeed if the underlying attitude of me and my environment is fault-tolerant, i.e. we do not divide actions into right and wrong, but focus on gaining experience. At the same time, it is essential in this context that we learn from our experiences, i.e. that we do not repeat actions that in retrospect turn out to be mistakes. The error culture that I also advocate has a lot to do with “not jumping into the same river twice”.

Error culture – a difficult challenge

Already here, the first limits of this seemingly simple assumption become apparent, because (as Heraclitus stated so beautifully), “No one can get into the same river twice”, something – no matter how small – is always different. The question of whether we are dealing with the same river, i.e. the same error, is therefore ultimately a question of evaluating and assessing the previously unknown consequences that become apparent in subjective experience.

To forestall the objection that there are of course clear errors, the example “2+2 always adds up to 4” is often cited here: Yes, I agree with that. And at the same time, such errors are also based on commonly made assumptions. As far as I remember, they are called axioms in mathematics. These axioms are standardised worldwide, but since human perception and our value systems are subjective, it is much more difficult to make assessments when acting and making decisions.

A learning error culture, as we need it, for example, in dealing with uncertainty, but also in our professional, private and social interaction, must therefore deal with the question of individual evaluation. After the individual assessment, the consensus assessment in a group of people has to be addressed, and since aspects such as time and resources are also involved, the whole thing becomes a truly difficult challenge.

Scotty again…

I would like to illustrate this with the example of the Enterprise and its on-board engineer Scotty, whom I hold in such high esteem:

In the middle of a critical situation, let’s assume a threat from outside, the Enterprise has a disturbance in the energy supply. In this situation, not only must an exploratory – very simplified in trial-and-error mode – search be made for a solution, but this solution must be found as soon as possible. The tools available are far removed from those of a maintenance yard. In his repair attempt, Scotty therefore not only decides whether a solution direction is helpful at all, but also evaluates in what time and with what means it can be implemented and is thus helpful in the situation at all.

It can happen that Scotty tries something more than once, simply because the situation changes. Or he may do something that seems identical to the audience, but is different at a crucial point. In order to distinguish these subtleties, he needs a kind of inner compass in which

  • expertise,
  • abstraction and
  • intuition

are essential skills for distinguishing between “known error” and “worthwhile attempt”. For the crew to believe in him and also support him, there needs to be some kind of common consensus in such assessments, or at least the trust of the others in his compass. All these are components of a culture of error and (shared) learning experiences.

Our inner compass

Now, of course, such an inner compass does not always function as the situation itself requires. Who of us does not experience situations in which we act according to a pattern that has not helped us in previous, comparable situations? We “naturally” prefer to recognise such errors in others. Doesn’t X look for the same “wrong” partners over and over again? Doesn’t Y get into the same kind of submission stress again and again or put off tasks?

Anyone who also reflects on their own person and deals with self-awareness knows how difficult it is to accept such personal patterns in the first place, let alone change them. The only thing is: in order to be able to evaluate whether and in which situations my inner compass is acting appropriately, I have to learn a lot about these patterns of my mistakes.

What is to be changed and what is not?

Changing patterns is difficult even in a fault-tolerant culture and also requires an intact self-esteem. And now Ms Kast comes along and recommends that I also ask myself the question, what errors characterise me? This is almost inevitably linked to the idea that there are probably mistakes that I always repeat. At first glance, this is difficult to reconcile with the demands I make on myself and also with my understanding of error culture, which is all about learning from mistakes. And at the same time, who doesn’t know these error patterns that we encounter again and again in an iterative way? Often little has changed since the last encounter; in the best case, at least the challenges associated with the situation become greater, so that I at least recognise progress in my development.

I think Ms Kast means such mistakes when she speaks of mistakes that distinguish us. And she is by no means advocating accepting them as fate – freely according to the motto “That’s just the way I am, and we have to put up with it”. Rather, she points out that there are faults that even with the best will in the world we cannot (immediately) resolve, that we work on and that we have recognised as typical for us.

And this is how the apparent contradiction of the error culture is resolved for me: it does not necessarily imply that we learn from mistakes (immediately) to do things differently. Instead, it creates the space not only to recognise the errors that characterise us, but even to acknowledge them, i.e. to accept them as something whose occurrence is also quite likely the next time in a similar situation. This is learning, even if it is difficult to digest in a world that likes to distinguish between wrong and right actions.

The knowledge of our very own mistakes shows us our limits. It becomes a resource that shows us where we can act competently and where we should ask for support if necessary.

And by the way, once I have accepted the mistakes that distinguish me, it will also become clear which of them dissolve almost playfully and which simply belong to me, at least for the next few years 😉



[1] On the dynamics of crisis and transformation, lecture 1996/1997, at Auditorium Netzwerk.
[2] see among others Learning is not a sexy subject
[3] Unfortunately, the term error does not have a positive connotation in our language. Nevertheless, I use the term without inverted commas and as a synonym for something not going directly in a desired direction.

Astrid Kuhlmey has published other articles on the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: What we can learn from starship Enterprise

What we can learn from starship Enterprise

t2informatik Blog: Learning from IT mistakes

Learning from IT mistakes

t2informatik Blog: Letting go is the new way of planning

Letting go is the new way of planning

Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.