Make Mistakes Quickly

When running a small business, it is important to make mistakes. A lot of them. And as fast as you can.

That seems counter-intuitive, but it is true. Embracing your mistakes and the opportunity hidden inside each one gives you a huge competitive advantage over larger companies. At the typical risk-averse BigCo, mistakes can often be career-ending events, hype and motivational posters to the contrary.

Fortunately, you, as a small business owner, are going to have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, and it is highly unlikely that you are going to fire yourself. A small business operates in a world of competing pressures and opportunities, and with limited resources. Your business is built on your personal expertise, and that comes from experience and learning from those experiences, good and bad alike. Like any experience, your mistakes have value. Our business has accumulated a lot of this kind of value over the years!

Mistakes are most valuable when caught early, and most expensive when caught late. The key is to recognize mistakes early, so that they don’t take you over a cliff. You want your mistakes to be speed-bumps, not calamities. Finding where the speed-bumps are helps you find where they aren’t, and then you can floor it. Future articles will show you a system for probing around for speed-bumps, looking for the gaps: engineers call this a genetic algorithm.

The goal is what is known as process improvement. Everything you do in your business is a process, whether you explicitly recognize activities as processes or not (if not, then you need a process for recognizing processes). Your processes exist, and your mistakes are cues to help you discover and improve them.

We’ll get into the whole topic of process improvement in future articles also, but for now, here is a simple exercise that we’ll build on later. First, pick any recent experience that turned into an obstacle. If you are a small business owner, choose a business example. For example, an important shipment turned up late, causing you to miss a critical deadline. If you are not a small business owner, pick something from your personal life or from work. Have a bad experience in mind? Now, write down the steps that led to that obstacle, including all the decision points. In the late shipment example, go all the way back to when you decided to order, or should have decided to order or followup but did something different.

Writing the steps down is important; it isn’t enough to just think about them. Writing forces your brain to think about the important details so that you can see them. Start a new document (from your open source office tools) and give as much detail as you can. Don’t have time to do this exercise right now? No problem, make a note on your calendar (see the article on time management skills) for when you will have time to do it.

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K Hawley
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K Hawley
3 months 22 days ago
I used to tell people that, once I heard that on average an entrepreneur tried three times before achieving a success, I was eager to start and fail my first two businesses so I could move on to the third, successful one. You can smile at that, but the mindset is important. Small mistakes corrected early and improved process are great. Big mistakes can kill a company. At the same time, there will be occasions for “bet the company” decisions that you must recognize and be willing to make. Perhaps it’s a distinction between a CEO role and a COO… Read more »
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