The fuzzy space for making mistakes

Foster an environment where it's okay to not be perfect 100% of the time.

When I was conducting one of my two workshops for RenderATL on Building Influence for Engineers & EMs, an attendee was discussing their fear over producing incorrect results. They had presented incorrect data once before, and it “couldn’t happen again.”

Naturally, it got me to thinking. There’s so much fear around making mistakes. Nobody wants to be incorrect. Many companies also have a tendency to naturally want their team to do their best work, which is perfectly acceptable until it results in creating a culture where your team sees any error as a chance to lose their job.

When I think about the fuzzy space for making mistakes, I’m referring to welcoming mistakes where it’s safe to do so. This space is crucial for innovation and growth. It’s where learning happens.

One important thing to remember is that, in engineering, the mistakes we make typically aren't a matter of life or death. We don't need to get malpractice insurance like doctors do. Sure, you could be working on a system that keeps someone’s heart beating, but I’m going to assume 99.9% of you are not. Now, this of course isn't to say that our work isn't important—quite the opposite. But the reality is that most errors can be corrected without catastrophic consequences. Keeping this perspective in mind, especially as an engineering leader, can help reduce the fear and pressure around making mistakes.

It can be really frustrating to see your team making several errors in their work. Trust me, I get it. You’re responsible for their work, and you want them to do a great job and set a fine example for your team. But there’s a difference between sloppy work and a genuine mistake, and the difference there is attention to detail.

In an ideal work environment, we look at mistakes as opportunities for growth, not as failures. We acknowledge the error, we talk about how it can be prevented in the future, we make a note of it, and we move on. (Making a note of it will help the engineer in question remember what they had suggested they do otherwise to avoid the issue). In situations where it’s truly an edge case, accept that you’re not going to be able to prevent 100% of the bugs that arise.

That fuzzy space is cultural, and it’s attainable in any org by adopting a few practices:

Encourage open communication. Foster an environment where team members feel safe discussing their mistakes. On my team we have a section in our weekly check-in to discuss any regressions that occurred over the past week. It can be this structured or it can be ad hoc.

Celebrate learning. Shift the focus from the mistake itself to what was learned from it. We learn more from the mistakes we make, and the rest of your team can avoid making that same mistake.

Set clear expectations. Make sure your team knows that while perfection is not expected, honesty and effort are. Again, we’re not asking for 100% avoidance, but we’re also not advocating for letting sloppy work slip through. Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as it’s not becoming a pattern.

Provide support. Following on the previous point, if it is becoming a pattern, that’s when you step in as their manager to have a clear discussion. Get to the root of why you’re seeing a pattern here. Is it a process thing? Is something going on in their life that’s distracting them from their work? Are they feeling stressed about a deadline? Go in with an inquisitive mind.

Lastly, lead by example. Own your mistakes! As a leader, be open about the mistakes you made and what you’ve learned from them. You’re setting an example where it’s okay to be imperfect and it’s encouraged to discuss regressions and mistakes out in the open. You and your team will be better for it.

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