Paul J.H. Schoemaker, founder and executive chairman of Decision Strategies International
Courtesy of the Mack Center
By Paul J.H. Schoemaker
March 23, 2015

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the best mistake you ever made?” is written by Paul J.H. Schoemaker, founder and executive chairman of Decision Strategies International.

Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder and ex-CEO of IBM once said, “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” And I agree. Mistakes help us shrink our ego, realign with reality, and increase the chance of discovery. But our world is designed for efficiency and order. This is a good thing, generally speaking, though it discourages mistakes, which are often the best teachers. Some mistakes even end up changing industries. Just consider Einstein’s famous theory that E=mc2. This itself was the result of nearly a decade of errors and mistakes. Here are three important lessons you can learn from making mistakes:

Embrace the lessons mistakes offer. Real failure is not having the courage to try at all, or sweeping less-than-ideal outcomes under the rug. As so many entrepreneurs and startups remind us, the road to success rarely follows a straight line. But those who make it are resilient; they accept the bumps and detours along the way as opportunities to learn and adjust their strategies. In fact, as we studied the behavior of 30,000 executives across the globe for our book Winning The Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future, we uncovered a direct link between the ability to learn and true strategic leadership, which is what ultimately enables professionals and organizations to thrive over the long term. As Honda’s founder Soichiro Honda said, “success is 99% failure.”

It’s okay to deliberately make mistakes. Doing so can accelerate the learning process and help you achieve future success. This goes beyond learning from random mistakes and encourages people to go against their better judgment. This is just what advertising genius David Ogilvy did when he decided to run ads that were previously rejected by his client. While most of them flopped, as expected, a few turned out to be brilliant, including the now famous ad: The Man in the Hathaway Shirt.

Recognize the potential of making mistakes. Designing for, and learning from, a mistake can make it “brilliant.” The list of past business mistakes — as judged by the conventional wisdom at the time — that proved to be brilliant is endless. Some examples include personal copiers, ATM machines, tobacco-free cigarettes, etc. There are many ideas floating around today in business that will prove to be brilliant in the future. The challenge is to recognize them, and this can only happen if there is sufficient space for productive mistakes to occur.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s the best mistake you ever made?

Why this CEO dropped out of business school to open a pizza shop by Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.

My best career mistake: Not asking for help by Sandhya Venkatachalam, partner and co-founder of Centerview Capital.

My best career mistake: quitting my job for love by David Reese, vice president of people and culture at Medallia.

From rags to riches: What one CEO learned from his biggest mistake by Ryan Smith, CEO and founder of Qualtrics.

Does the perfect employee really exist? by Ryan Harwood, CEO of PureWow.

Confessions of a startup founder: What I learned from my $5K mistake by Sunil Rajaraman, Co-Founder,

How to fail (wisely) by David DeWolf, CEO and President of 3Pillar Global.

How to make the most of your mistakes by Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean.


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