Making Mistakes... On Purpose

I was keynoting at a Satmetrix (the Net Promoter People) customer experience conference last week in London -- and over fish ‘n chips during lunch, I ended up chatting with one of my fellow keynoters, Ian Williams (@CustExpMan), about making mistakes.

Ian had a rather controversial point of view that organizations should go out of their way to make mistakes ON PURPOSE. I immediately thought of Apple versus Microsoft. While the former seemingly makes mistake after mistake (remember AntennaGate?) and seemingly gets away with it every time, the latter -- in an effort to be perfect to market -- gets vilified for even the tiniest deviations from the norm.

In the startup world, there is a popular saying: “Done is better than perfect.” This statement speaks to the ability get a release in the market warts and all, as opposed to obsessing on ironing out all glitches and gremlins before allowing consumers in.



Failing fast, embracing failure, pivoting and “iterating, iterating, iterating” are all healthy signs of life in the entrepreneurial world, but how does this translate into the corporate world of innovation? Or in this particular case, the world of customer service and customer experience?

Furthermore, what about the ability to purposely make mistakes? It’s one thing to make a mistake (that’s why they call it a mistake), but when this is deliberate, surely it falls somewhere on the continuum of corporate sabotage to corporate insanity?

When I’m asked what makes a brand social, or how a company can become more social, I talk about R.E.A.C.H., an acronym (hey, I’m a consultant) for responsive, empathetic, accessible, connected and HUMAN. What is it to be human? Corporations aren’t human, but their employees are. Brands are not human, but they are symbols that reflect the beliefs, ideals and philosophy of the founders, leaders, employees, partners -- and customers of the company it keeps.

The Starbucks promise is that if you aren’t absolutely happy with your drink, they’ll make another for you. That’s their assurance to you if the barista at the register, the one with the Sharpie or the one that presses the buttons at the machine, isn’t always on top of his game.

If it is true that “to err is human, but to forgive, divine,” surely this is a sign to empower our front line to make more honest mistakes.  Humans aren’t perfect, and it is precisely this imperfection that endears us to one another. Surely our customers would be the first to recognize this. Surely empathy works both ways.

I saw a stat that shows that companies who aren’t able to sufficiently solve a problem, but went about it in a genuine, compassionate way, scored higher net promoter scores than companies who did solve a particular problem, but did so in a rude, uncaring or abrasive way.  That’s an incredible insight into aptitude versus attitude.

In a world where we punish our customer service agents if they spend too much time on the phone, what if we rewarded them based on how many times they messed up?  What if we incentivized our people based on their ability to volunteer times they were prepared to take a chance to tackle a challenge, versus handing it off to the next in line? And if they were to fail, celebrate and encourage them to share the learnings and insights that have the potential to iterate, evolve and grow with the entire company?

Of course, I recognize the irony that if one sets out to make a mistake on purpose, it isn’t a mistake at all, is it? Which is in of itself… perfect!



3 comments about "Making Mistakes... On Purpose".
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  1. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, September 17, 2014 at 4:10 p.m.

    Joseph, there is another relevant saying, this one from the world of ancient philosophy: Perfect is enemy of the Good. In my own "corporate world of innovation," that was our mantra. Did we then celebrate "mistakes"? Not at all; rather we practiced a process that allowed for, even assumed, mistakes, but mistakes from which we could learn how to more quickly & surely "get better" at what we were doing and reach, if you will, the Good. Iterate, iterate, iterate, of course, but to get better, not to glorify mistakes.

  2. Joseph Jaffe from Alpha Collective, September 17, 2014 at 4:41 p.m.

    @Kenneth - thanks for your insightful comment. Totally agree that we should not reward mistakes....but at the same time we shouldn't punish them either. The "forced" mistake is really not about a premeditated mistake (which by definition is not a mistake at all), but in effect what you said, "a process that allows for, even assumes mistakes."

  3. Ian Williams from Jericho, September 17, 2014 at 4:56 p.m.

    Hi Joseph - Thanks for the callout! I originally thought about the idea earlier this year and spelt it out in a blog called "Service Recovery vs. Right First Time". I think we have broadly reached similar conclusions. :)

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