Let's Fight About Making Mistakes. Or Let's Not.

Another mantra in the performance improv world is the celebration of mistakes.

In our classes, we want to get people past the point of editing things, and worrying about their ideas and just get them to go - to make a decision, to make a move. To that end, we "celebrate" mistakes. Participants can take a circus bow, saying, "I Failed!" and everyone will applaud wildly. This comes from a simple need: if we wait for the perfect thing to say, nothing will ever be said. Let's practice on going with our first idea, and if the idea turns out to be terrible, so much the better. We laugh about it and move on.

In our own performance ensemble, we laugh and often roll around on the floor at mistakes made within scenes or games. Even better, sometimes these mistakes result in new ways of doing things and new game ideas. Mistakes are opportunities for laughs and sometimes for growth. We love mistakes!

So, naturally, we carry the concept forward into Applied Improvisation.

Almost everyone who teaches in Applied Improv brings this "celebration of mistakes" forward into their work. This seems like a great fit, especially as people are just figuring out how to work in the games and exercises. It starts to become (or at least seem) less of a fit as our clients think about applying the lessons of the workshop to their work lives. "We can't be making mistakes all of the time," one told me recently.

Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN is trying to get practitioners to ease up on the celebration of mistakes: "People keep telling me they learn from their mistakes.  And I’m pretty sure they are mistaken." Read Paul's blog post here.

I've worked with more than a few clients who bluntly tell me they cannot make mistakes. Some of them, like 9-1-1 operators (that's 9-9-9 to our friends in the UK) and front line employees at a blood-testing laboratory service, are probably right. We don't want avoidable mistakes in their work - the results could literally kill someone.  

In those jobs, the time for making mistakes is in practice (or training).  Once the whistle blows, and we're on the clock, we need precision and error-free work.

I look at mistakes in Applied Improvisation the same way. Our workshops are practice, where people can learn new skills and figure out that errors won't kill them, or even hurt them at all. My teaching is that mistakes are part of the process of learning new skills. You can't learn something new without messing up a lot. Our workshops are a great place to mess up without consequences. "In life, we are the players who live with the consequences of the actions," says Paul Z Jackson, "Context is so important."

 When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

We want to learn to be OK with ourselves for making mistakes, but often, we're still not supposed to make them in real life. Lots of "people and organizations create high stakes environments across the board, rather than leaving room for learning and innovation. It seems like skillful leaders are those who can be purposeful about creating spaces/processes where mistakes are valued." (Jim Ansaldo, Director of Camp Yes And at Indiana University)

When is a mistake not a mistake?

"We've seen numerous scientific and technological discoveries that were the unintended consequences of other pursuits. In the Design Thinking world, the concept of "rapid prototyping" suggests that a trial and error process using stakeholder feedback is the quickest route to operationalizing great ideas." (Jim Ansaldo)

Perhaps the word "mistake" isn't even the right word for every instance of unintended results.

So, what ARE we teaching?

In Applied Improvisation, I think we are actually teaching people to be better to one another. We know mistakes are a part of doing business, so let's minimize their impact on people on our team.

My Five Pillars of the Improv System are:

  • Listening
  • Accepting
  • Supporting
  • Taking Competent Risks
  • Letting Go of Mistakes

Mistakes are going to happen, but are we going to let our team become dominated by them, or could we:

  • Own and accept it
  • Fix it as soon as possible
  • Share it so others learn
  • Move on

If we create a culture where we own it, fix it, share it and move on, we'll spend less time and energy and reduce the paralysis that comes from fear of making mistakes. Wouldn't that be a more pleasant place to work? Wouldn't that also make our customers happier? (In a Design Thinking environment, we might substitute "use it" or "analyze it" for "fix it".*)

The key thing for me in our vendor relationships is what happens when something goes wrong. It's easy to provide "good customer service" when everything runs smoothly. The response when something doesn't go right is what separates great vendors from the rest. Own it, fix it, share it and move on.

In the operational side of our own company, I'd like to be one of those great vendors, providing value and keeping things simple, but when something goes wrong, own it, fix it, share it and move on. 

Of course, we don't want to see the same mistake over and over. We don't want people deliberately messing things up. What we really want is for people to forgive each other easily for mistakes, make the problem right, have the organization learn and move on. We also want to stop the paralysis that fear brings to teams.  The world is changing too fast to let fear hold us back.

Applied Improvisors struggle to get clients to take the leap of faith to work with us. Part of the struggle might be significantly reduced if we stop "celebrating mistakes" and tell you what we're actually talking about.

It's all in the context. It usually is. It's also in the words we use to tell people what we do.

Just to keep the controversy alive, Patrick Short would like to include this list of 40 Things You Can Learn From Mistakes. He would also like to thank Jim Ansaldo for helping to cut to the heart of the matter.