Rebounding From Mistakes

by Joanne Leitschuh

Do you suffer from paralysis? That is, do you analyze the analysis to the point that your business is in danger because you have delayed much too long in making an important decision? There seems to be lurking in our conscience the fear of making mistakes -- and understandably so. When making a mistake in the business world, you rarely get many pats on the back with the comforting comment, "Not to worry, we all make mistakes."

It's not uncommon to have doubts, even after you have carefully evaluated all of the potential solutions to a problem. Dr Henry Kissinger once explained that when he was the U.S. Secretary of State, the decisions he was taking were not always what was obviously right and what was obviously wrong: "There were 51/49 decisions. Sometimes we made mistakes." 1

Every decision-taker has to live with the risk of failure. It's part of the business process. Being quick to acknowledge a mistake is a useful and common business characteristic. All managers will make mistakes but their business will survive when they turn fast in the right direction.

Obviously, it's easy to look back on past wrong decisions and ask, "Why on earth did I decide to do that? Couldn't I have foreseen that it would lead to these problems?" But, like all learning processes, especially in a new business or product, we don't know and can't foresee all potential disasters. One of my jobs in our wholesale jewellery business is dealing with customer complaints. Someone once told me that all companies will face problems, but it is how you personally deal with them that counts. Your customers will remember how you made a wrong a right.

What about the big mistakes? For example, we decided not to rhodium plate our sterling silver necklace chains because it produced a duller finish than pure silver. However, after about three months without the rhodium plate, the chains were tarnishing in the shops. Because the necklaces looked brown on display, sales slowed right down. Our factory then discovered that we could do a combination of rhodium and silver plate to retard tarnishing while keeping the chains looking bright. In order not to lose customers and more sales, the reps exchanged the brown chains for new ones. All of the existing stock on our shelves in the UK and in Thailand had to be re-plated. We spent a lot of time and money to correct a wrong decision. On a positive note, our customers saw that we were willing to stand behind our guarantee of quality and service. Did we learn from this situation? You bet we did!

Currently, we are considering not developing our existing market so that we can put all of our resources into a new one. If we do not make this transition at the right time, there could be serious cash flow problems. There are a lot of complex issues involved in making the right decision — but there's no avoiding it. There will be risks involved. Many people will be affected. But will we live in fear of making a mistake? No, because a mistake is just another name for a problematic situation. Problems can be solved. Situations can change for the better with alertness, guidance and diligence. So when mistakes occur -- and they probably will -- we will need to see them as character-building tools and not just a means to get egg on our faces!

1 Wheatcroft, Patience, The Human Factor, Management Today, June 2002.

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