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Take Chances, Make Mistakes - It\'s Ok!

I love to ski. But, much of skiing is not even skiing; it’s waiting in line and riding the lift. So, you learn to find enjoyment in those down times. When I’m riding the chair lift, I spend my time watching other skiers on the slope below. My eyes are usually drawn to the skiers who blast through the hill and catch an edge, leaving their hat, poles and skis all over the slope like a yard sale. Those are the ones I want to watch! Likewise, if I haven't had at least one wipeout by the end of a day of skiing ... well, I haven’t been skiing! No mistakes means I’ve been playing it too conservatively and not really getting the most out of my performance.

The same thing is true in business. Sometimes you make mistakes – big ones, little ones and everything in between. If you never make a mistake, then you are playing too conservatively, staying within a comfort zone. Sooner or later, you have to push out of your comfort zone. 

Business owners make mistakes. Not only is this human but it’s an acceptable and expected part of running a business. At the risk of losing a few of you here, I’m going to cite a line out of The Magic School Bus: “…take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” This quote may as well be the theme song of every business owner out there. Your business can’t grow if you don’t take chances, and doing so may mean you make a mistake on occasion. The business owner who doesn’t make a single mistake is probably not leading a growing business.

So should you try to make mistakes? Of course not! But when you do make a mistake, you can’t let it debilitate you and prevent you from moving forward. I see this happen all too often with business owners. Of course, I understand how they feel. When you own a business, you tend to take everything personally so every mistake can hurt deeply. Here’s what you can do to avoid those “hurts” while enabling your business’ growth at the same time.

1.    Consult with people who can help you avoid mistakes. Are you the most qualified person to make every decision? When I go to a restaurant, I narrow down the choices to two or three entrees, and then ask the server to make a choice for me. I know I will be happy with any of the options and since they have more information, I let them choose. Some servers will choose the most expensive option to pad their tip, but I’ve decided that risk is worth it to me. This is why we have to choose advisors carefully for our business. Our insurance broker, our banker, our financial advisors ... they all have mixed motives. They are in business to make money and they can influence our choices in ways that enrich their businesses. But, if they are professional and are in their particular business for the long term, they will give us good advice. So the most important decision is whom to trust – not which product, or process to follow.

2.    Gather data. I see many of us looking for more data to make better decisions. We don’t know what the economy is going to do so we read five economic reports.  Is this the right person to hire, let’s have 3 more people interview them.  More data doesn’t always make better decisions, but it does make us feel like we are making better decisions. If you are looking for more data, ask yourself a few questions.  How is this new data different from the data I already have? (Asking another person the same questions is likely to give redundant, not new data.)  Is the data gathering and analysis scaled to the materiality of the decision? (If you are investing a million dollars you want to do a lot of analysis; if you are deciding which phone service provider to use you may not need the same level of detail.) How hard is it to undo? Decisions that are easily reversed don’t need the same level of analysis.

3.    Recognize patterns. Pattern recognition is your friend. Since you can’t always do all the analysis that every decision requires, you rely on “gut feel” often. What is “gut feel”? Your “gut” is the accumulation of your past experiences. As you look back, you look for patterns, or indicators that this decision is going to be a lot like the last time. It’s also important to recognize when the fundamentals have changed, when is your “gut” giving us bad data. But pattern recognition is fast and accurate (see Gladwell’s “Blink”) if the situation is one you have seen before.

4.    Plan for some margin of error. Even the best laid plans of mice and men may still come to naught. If the plan you are working on needs everything to go well in order for it to be a success – watch out. It’s likely that won’t happen. So build in some buffer, extra time and extra expense, and then make sure it’s still a good plan. Things happen, so plan for it.

5.    Avoid blame. When things do go wrong, try to take them in stride. Take a look at what went wrong, what could have been foreseen and what couldn’t. How would you want to do this differently next time? A realistic assessment of the mistake is reassuring to everyone. But any good screw-up requires a team effort! Be sure to own your part of the problem, those things that you could or should have done differently. Let others own their part on their own; you don’t usually have to point them out. If you really think they are missing their contribution, address it one-to-one.

Mistakes often have an associated cost – whether it's time, money or both. But, when you can take your mistakes in stride and recognize the lessons learned, you will see they can have tremendous value to a growing business.