To share a mistake

Mistakes: we all make them, and learn from them, but our business culture is not to talk about them.

A Managing Director once counselled me that when submitting ‘traffic light’ board reports for his business line, the lights should all be green.

Job interviewees sidestep truthful responses to clichéd questions about personal weaknesses. They offer irrelevancies (‘I can’t sing’) or dress-up strengths as a weaknesses (‘I work too many hours because I am obsessive about work’).

It’s even harder in the public sector to talk about what went wrong, with political fortunes at jeopardy and external communication tightly controlled. Committees, hearings and inquiries are needed to get at the truth, and then the truth itself is mangled into a new lie by the Opposition.

As the infrastructure industry is essentially hosted by the public sector, public airing of stuff-ups is tricky.

You can imagine that plenty goes wrong when billion dollar plus infrastructure assets are developed or operated. And while it would be best to try to learn from these mistakes, our culture impedes us, and as they say, condemns us to repeat them.

For this reason, the need to talk openly about mistakes is on the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia’s (ISCA) transformation agenda. ISCA’s rating scheme rewards knowledge sharing that, ‘includes mistakes as well as good practices’ (Man-7, level 3).

It is no mistake that the scheme uses the word ‘mistakes’. How often is coded language used? Project’s have ‘challenges’, or several ‘learnings’ are discovered along the way. This falls somewhere between beating around the bush and sweeping under the carpet.

The ISCA scheme acknowledges the magnitude of the challenge by including mistake sharing as a level 3 criterion.

It might be worth ‘warming up’ your clients and managers to the idea that the knowledge sharing process ultimately includes sharing where a mistake has been made – as a contribution to the wider industry (and as a simple way to gain credit at level 3 for knowledge sharing).

Please note, it is not recommended to go about making mistakes merely to talk about them later.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of Scott Losee and may not represent affiliated organisations and advice provided does not form part of the IS Technical Manual guidance nor is it an IS Ruling, IS Technical Clarification or IS Credit Interpretation.

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