The topic of a “culture of error” or a “culture that allows mistakes to be made” is fashionable and has recently been discussed in many companies and conferences. This discussion ranges from the enthusiasm and the desire for a quick introduction of so-called FuckUp Events in companies to the complete rejection of any tolerance for errors. The proponents want to celebrate mistakes as a learning opportunity while the critics describe mistakes as a cost factor that reduces profits and must therefore be bad per se. Both of these views fall short of the mark.

I have already written in previous articles why I love FuckUp Nights. This is because they enable us to learn: both the people concerned, who must have reported on such an experience and reflected on it, and the listeners, because they can learn through observation and the experiences of others. Talking about mistakes, errors or failed projects is an important part of a learning culture. Do they really need to be celebrated, as critics like to argue? No, they don’t. It is not at all about celebrating mistakes, as is sometimes done in Silicon Valley. What is the point of celebrating a failure and highlighting how grandiose it was? That would mean that we actually want to fail and make mistakes. I don’t think anyone likes to fail voluntarily. And certainly not healthy, happy, competent or successful people, as some authors like to express it.

It simply hurts

If failure is the ultimate non-achievement of personal goals, then it’s going to hurt because it is also about identity and downfall. This holds true whether it’s a project, an unachieved important goal, the end of a relationship or insolvency. Some go so far as to link the experience of failure to identity-creating motives and goals, in which case failure is simply painful. When we talk about a real culture of mistakes or learning, this has nothing to do with celebrating mistakes, but rather with the processing of emotional pain on a personal level. These negative emotions can also have a negative influence on the loyalty of an employee to their company.

For companies, the question arises as to how they can nevertheless benefit from the costs of an error or failure. The benefit of mistakes and failure lies in the learning effect. An error culture and a learning culture are mutually dependent, so to speak. Without mistakes there is no learning and there is no learning without mistakes. But learning is also an investment in the future in which the same mistake will hopefully not be made again. And then an open attitude towards mistakes and failures suddenly has a completely different meaning – namely investing in the experience and competence of employees.

Unwanted results are perfectly normal

Of course, not every mistake or failure is the same. If a mistake is predictable and avoidable, there is no reason other than negligence or stupidity for it to happen. The causes should have been known and thus avoided. If a mistake is neither predictable nor avoidable, that’s a different story. This is the case, for example, in complex and unsafe situations or when, as with innovations, new processes and products are involved. These must first be tested and checked in order to find out what the actual properties and results would be. This is different if a mistake is neither predictable nor avoidable, as is the case, for example, in complex and unsafe situations. Or when, as with innovations, new processes and products are involved. These must first be tested and checked in order to find out what the actual properties and results would be. Unexpected and undesired results are completely normal and cannot be avoided. And yet they are valuable for gaining knowledge about how it doesn’t work and new ideas about how it could work.

When I speak of a culture of error or improved learning, I speak of a culture in which exactly these unforeseeable and unavoidable errors may happen in order to learn from them. In principle, we have two learning strategies at our disposal: Imitation or exploration. Imitating others helps us to learn from their experiences and competences. This also means that we don’t try anything new, meaning that the results are predictable and avoidable. If we want to break new ground, explore and discover something new – exploration – then we have to be prepared to engage in something unpredictable and unavoidable.

If this unpredictable and inevitable is personally important and identity-building, then no matter how normal, natural or desirable the failure is – it will be painful.

Overcoming failure

Studies show that negative feelings in connection with failed projects increase the risk of decreasing commitment and loyalty of employees to the company. According to these studies, the processing of negative emotions and coping with failure is also influenced by the employees’ perception of how the company deals with failure and the amount of time given to employees to process it.

A credible error or learning culture is mandatory for all companies that are active in an environment in which errors cannot be avoided or foreseen. This is likely to apply to any company that operates in a so-called VUCA environment – in other words, almost all companies.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.