Six steps to effective error management

Innovations and errors are inextricably linked.

The trail that leads to discoveries, new processes and inventions involves entering and exploring new fields of knowledge. They can be large or small, but almost always making errors is an important part of the process of exploration and discovery.

Here are six steps to developing an effective error management culture that can improve your organisation’s capacity for innovation:

1.       Innovation processes are inherently contradictory and chaotic

Innovative processes are inherently error prone. There is so much information that is unclear – therefore, errors are frequent. Moreover, creative ideas sometimes appear by chance. Errors help this serendipity during the innovation process.

2.       Experimentation is crucial for innovation

Since there is no prior knowledge of what constitutes a useful innovation, experimentation is necessary. Many experiments, of course, do not work out, but experimentation should be done methodically, rather than at random. This way necessary mistakes are made quickly, and their impact controlled.

3.       Errors lead to exploration

Errors make people more aware of their actions and their environment, which can in turn spark exploration and lead to new areas of inquiry and innovations.

For example discoveries of the – at the time, surprising – effects of Viagra and penicillin came about as a result of action errors.

It takes an open and prepared mind however to make the link, turning an accidental detection of a surprising phenomenon into an innovation.

A closed mind that views errors as only negative, will simply discard the results and move on.

4.       Entering uncharted territory raises the likelihood of errors

New ideas, innovative products or services implies entering new and unchartered territory. Inherent to this is that there will be less knowledge and therefore more errors are likely.

Entrepreneurs in particular have to explore and improvise as they seek to build their business and connect with customers. Errors are the inevitable result.

5.       Errors and creativity are related

Some creativity techniques such as brainstorming are precursors of error management.

Brainstorming (whether done in groups or alone) begins with a phase in which one should voice whatever comes to mind—even if it is wrong.

Only in the second phase of evaluation is the efficacy and usefulness of ideas put to the test.

Such creativity techniques implicitly differentiate between errors and error consequences, allowing and enabling errors as important for creativity.

6.       Error management is closely tied to performance ambidexterity

A firm or organisation that is ambidextrous is one that is able to both experiment with new products while at the same time refining its existing products or services.

This however requires an organisational culture that is open to and accepting of errors.

It acknowledges that failures can instigate new ideas and increase the organisation’s strength to follow through on them, generating new products, services and methodologies that boost organisational performance.

  • Author Profile

    Professor Michael Frese is head of the Department of Management & Organisation at NUS Business School, and a professor at the Institute of Strategic Personnel Management and Institute of Corporate Development (ICD) at Leuphana University of Lueneburg, Germany. His research spans a wide range of topics within organizational behavior and work psychology. Click here for a full profile.

  • More on Entrepreneurship

  • Sign up to our newsletter