Overcoming the Fear of Making a Mistake

Topics: Organization

As consultants, one trait we see is the need for managers and leaders to decide.  Consequently, several issues occur because of a manager’s indecision.  For example, a project continues to fester in development, and everyone knows it should be terminated, but no one wants to make that final decision.

Why does indecision happen? The fear of making a mistake!

 Paul Schoemaker[i] identified four types of mistakes: Tragic, Serious, Trivial, and Brilliant.

It’s best to stay away from Tragic and Serious types of mistakes.  Tragic, for example, having a car accident and being injured. At the same time, Serious is a new project or venture failing.

We can live with Trivial, such as a parking ticket. And Brilliant could be a lab error that has a significant positive outcome.

Brilliant mistakes are the beginning of discovery and determining what works and doesn’t work.  In product development, if you have a product idea with many uncertainties, it is best to break these down into manageable chunks and resolve the most significant uncertainties first.  This approach can lead to brilliant mistakes and minimizes serious mistakes and risks. I’m adding another mistake to Schoemaker’s four which is not making a decision, and this is commonly driven by fear.

Our firm developed the table below, listing five of the Biggest Fears that managers encounter daily, including an Approach to Combat those fears and the Outcome of practicing the approach. 

Biggest FearApproach to CombatOutcome
1. Looking dumb Lead by asking questions, don’t pretend to have all the answers, listen to the team, and act as a facilitator and coach.You gain respect.
2. Afraid of risksExploratory PD™ (ExPD) is based on identifying and resolving the most significant product uncertainties. Be open to small-scale experimentation and pilots. Fail Fast, Often, and Cheaply.You are seen as an innovator.
3. Making a wrong decisionWork with the team as a coach to understand and resolve the most significant project uncertainties—another major characteristic of ExPD.The team supports your decisions, and you will have more buy-in. The pressure is not all on you to have all the answers.
4. Fear of missing an opportunityStrategy rules will assist you and your team in making the right product decisions.You choose the right product ideas.
5.       Being firedProve yourself quickly with some fast successes. The higher up you are in the organization, the quicker you have to prove yourself. Typically, you only have a couple of years.You will have greater job security.

In closing, to realize fast success, you do have to make decisions. Take the available findings, reduce the product uncertainties, and determine if the company is willing to take on the risks. Get managers’ and team members’ participation, input, and buy-in on making important decisions.  Decision-making is a dynamic, evolving process that can be done systematically to lessen “serious” mistakes.

[i] Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure. (2011), Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.


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