Saturday, October 20, 2012

Perfecting skills by making mistaks

A perfectionist isn’t about being perfect all the time; it’s how much they beat themselves up when they make mistakes.  Of course some mistakes are not good, like accidentally hitting “reply all” to a company email and making a stupid remark, but in other instances they can be a good thing.  It’s the same mistakes that are made over and over again that are the ones we need to be worried about. 

I tend to think some of the best analysts, researchers and businesspeople are the ones who are making more mistakes than most ever realize.  Their successes simply overshadow their mistakes.  Ultimately, it’s what you do with those mistakes.  These “holy s**t” moments are some of the best learning opportunities and an amazing test of character.  They make us better at what we do and better prepared when another crisis arrives.  Mistakes are to be expected when we operate outside our comfort zones.  I’d be wary of meeting anyone that claims to have never made a mistake.  They are either insecure with their skills or have never pushed the boundaries of their current capabilities. 

When you work with thousands of data points, spanning multiple resources, building multiple reports, analyses and presentations, and creating surveys and proposals, you are bound to make a mistake or overlook something (Yes, even the bests analysts are human).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally copied an Excel formula that reformatted and misrepresented the analysis I originally intended (I hate to think how many have slip my radar to this day). 

Discovering the mistake is the first indication you are on the right path.  I’d be worry if I didn’t discover a mistake once in a while.  It would probably mean my analytical skills are diminishing.  Communicating and correcting the mistakes are the next steps.  One time I was giving a client presentation and realized as I was reviewing a chart that something didn’t seem to add up.  Now, most people in the room probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but I knew that wouldn’t be the right thing to do, so I indicated my concern and communicated that I would reanalyze the data and make sure everyone got the accurate representation as soon as I got back to my office.  This kind of direct transparency and honesty actually builds your credibility.  When I got back to my office and investigated, I learned a big lesson on how the mistake occurred.  A lesson I’ve learned to avoid since. 

Sometimes mistakes can help identify software quirks or issues that may have gone unnoticed for months, if not years.  A colleague of mine and I recently uncover a vendor’s software issue while rectifying an unrelated mistake we made.  Our solution to the mistake had also helped us develop an innovative solution for other potential issues we are likely to encounter in the future. 

I suspect there’s probably not a lot of “mistake sharing” sessions going on in organizations either, which may be an opportunity missed for learning and innovation.  I’ve read a number of business and leadership books that recommend this kind of transparency and open line of communication.  It’s not easy to own up to mistakes, but it can help dozens of others avoid making similar ones that can be costly.   I could see how creating this kind of culture would be a challenge, but the upside to innovation is just too hard to ignore.  

The work that goes into finding solution or oversights is extremely valuable.  My first published article was spawned from a mistake overlooked by another researcher in my field.  In fact, a lot of my own self taught analytical techniques were a product of fixing other mistakes (most of which were probably my own). 

Yes, our stomachs sink when we uncover or encounter an unexpected challenge or mistake, but the biggest mistake would be finding a way to hide it or ignoring it.  Embrace the roller coaster ride, because when done right, you can use it to take your skills to another level. 

My next post will be portions of The Art of Selling Research… and I’m sure there will be some mistakes.