Egon Zehnder
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Learning to make mistakes

Learning to Make Mistakes

Digital transformation calls for a whole new attitude to making mistakes. This can involve a radical culture change: In most German companies, for example, the principle of avoiding mistakes is deeply entrenched. But in the digital world this mindset inhibits progress, blocking the transformation process.

In a German-style culture, anyone who doesn’t want to jeopardize their career will tend to avoid excessive risks. Because if something goes wrong they may incur sanctions or at the very least see their career progression delayed. Yet this kind of cautious, fearful approach leads to passivity, inhibiting innovative ideas and opportunities are missed as a result.

The United States offers a valuable counter-example. Here, mistakes are seen as a totally natural and inevitable component of the desired entrepreneurial thinking and action and of the progress they are expected to drive. The basic attitude is that anyone who wants to be innovative and break new ground will, from time to time, inevitably take a wrong turning and fail. This isn’t a defect – it’s an enriching experience. The question is not “Why did you fail?” but “What did you learn from that?”

The management team and the CEO in particular need to actively promote this new risk-tolerant culture, demonstrating it with concrete examples. If innovative projects fail, or if mistakes are made during their implementation, then the results and those responsible for them should not be penalized. Quite the opposite: Executives must make it eminently clear that they stand by these projects and that everyone will benefit from these experiences.

In view of the agility that companies must develop in an economic environment where volatility is the norm, creating a culture in which mistakes are accepted as normal and inevitable is a key prerequisite for successful digital transformation.


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