Fess It, Then Fix it: Studying Mistakes Is How You Find Opportunities to Innovation

After each practice, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels huddle up and share something surprising: their mistakes. They don’t congratulate one another on everything they did right. Instead, they say, “I fess up to ______, and here’s how I’m going to fix it.” The Blue Angels don’t let pride in being expert aviators prevent them from acknowledging even they have room for improvement. Instead, their approach encourages ownership, celebrates aggressiveness and includes a plan to be even better. Here are three steps to improve your own company’s culture by embracing the Blue Angels’ practice of owning mistakes and failing forward.

1. Eliminate fear to build a culture with an ownership mentality.

Ownership is a powerful thing. Entrepreneurs and their incomes rise and fall because of decisions they make. The most successful business owners operate from a growth mindset that ties their results directly to their actions. They understand that if they improve what they’re doing, they’ll improve what they’re getting.

If you’d love to see all your team members adopt this same philosophy, you’ll have to foster a culture that eliminates the fear of making mistakes. Employees need to know that if they aren’t occasionally missing the mark, they aren’t trying hard enough. I’ve taught my children to repeat this daily mantra: “I cannot fail. I can only learn and grow.”

People who are being aggressive will make mistakes. When they’re afraid to fall short, though, they won’t innovate or push hard enough to expand boundaries. Get comfortable with making mistakes, and make sure to praise team members for owning mistakes, not for doing things perfectly.

2. Praise aggressiveness and outside-the-box thinking.

Too often, team cultures promote the safe play: Put in your time, don’t rock the boat, follow the script and (after x number of years) get in line for a payout. This model stifles innovation and puts your team in prime position to get lapped by the competition.

Entrepreneurs never have been about playing it safe. Shake things up by finding ways to publicly praise your outside-the-box thinkers and doers. Make sure team members understand the way it’s been done before probably isn’t some magic formula that always will work. Empower them to bring you any idea they’re willing to own — and to pitch to colleagues the ones you approve.

3. Fail forward as a team.

When coaches say, “Leave it all on the field,” they’re telling players not to put themselves in a position to look back with regret and wonder if there’s more they could’ve done. They’re saying, “Don’t leave this situation with a list of shoulda, coulda, wouldas.” Encourage team members to give their best, learn from mistakes and share how they’ll fix it next time.

Unfortunately, even the most talented, hardworking people get stuck in the trap of focusing on how they should’ve done something differently. They spin their wheels, overanalyzing yesterday’s mistakes until they’ll paralyzed by the what ifs and unable to avoid strategic mistakes in the future.

Achievement is about failing forward. As team members notice areas for improvement, encourage language that says, “We’ll fail forward.” Say, “Next time, I will _____” instead of “I should have ____.”

Failure is not just inevitable, it’s invaluable. No matter the industry, market trends or economic situation, this one life philosophy serves well. When people aren’t afraid to fail, they can give their very best and make sure they don’t leave anything on the table. Fear, on the other hand, drives people to pull back and disengage. You can’t fix the past, but you can change the future.

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