Monday, May 6, 2013

Make More Mistakes

Is your small business culture ruled by fear? Fear of loss. Fear of looking bad. Fear of being wrong. Fear of making mistakes. Instead being focused on customer satisfaction, is it oriented toward pleasing one perfectionist, righteous, controlling owner?.

How's that working for you?

In an off-site meeting with a small business owner in Austin, Texas, I asked  to what she attributed the downturn of her Internet business?

"Customer service" was the immediate reply.

How so?

"We had some people who messed up some orders."

Frankly, I would be shocked if a few mishandled orders were sufficient to kill spring sales across the board. I was more concerned that she wanted to assign blame to people she hired who were no longer there.

One of the first standards I set with a new marketing team in a small software business heading for an IPO was to demonstrate a constructive attitude toward making mistakes.

I brought a harmless nerf ball into a staff meeting. .

"We are a small group of people charged with a lot of responsibility and on a short timeline. It's imperative that we work together. We're going to make mistakes. What do we do about this?"

Then I playfully tossed the ball at one of my staff: "Here's the ball. Who needs it next?"

She tossed it to another co-worker, who tossed it to another, everyone laughing and enjoying the play, the ball lofting across the conference table one side to the other. As the pace picked up, somebody dropped the ball.

A gasp and dead silence.

"What happened?" I said.

"She dropped the ball." Eyes turned to the embarrassed teammate.

"Well pick it up!"

The point was pretty clear. No blame. No shame. No harm. No foul. No matter whether the error was forced or unforced. We can waste a lot of time pointing fingers and pushing each other into defensive postures or we can correct the damned mistake.

Every business screws up orders once in a while. How a business corrects a mistake is far more important than running scared of making one. When a  company's culture prizes accountability more than it assigns blame, deficiencies are much easier to identify and correct. And all employees will feel safe and motivated to contribute to success.

As for declining sales? Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. Leave no stone unturned. Above all, make more mistakes. You can correct mistakes. You can never account for - or recover - the lost opportunity of doing nothing for fear of making them.

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