By Chew

Like most people, I’ve lost money in investments. Like some people, I’ve messed up in school and career.

Mistakes make us uncomfortable. Some are held against us. We may be embarrassed or even penalised.

How do we deal with them? Simple. Remember the 3As.

Awareness is realising that something is not going according to plan or is not meeting expectations — ours or others. One simple method of checking this point is applying this concept:

  • Planned-Actual-Variance. This is borrowed from the accountants. The idea is to check for the difference between Planned or Expected against the Actual Outcome. It seems straightforward but isn’t. It assumes there is a plan or target. It is not unusual for many including myself to make decisions without an end in mind (oh, it sounds like a good idea). And when things happen, we have difficulty gauging how bad the situation is.

When we receive negative feedback: be thankful. When we stop receiving them, it is usually a bad sign. It’s like being in the eye of a storm.

Top-down: a supervisor who stops giving feedback is often one who has given up on the individual reporting to her or him.

Bottom-up: when management stops receiving feedback from the ground, they are flying blind.

Acceptance is the next step. I have met many people who believe they lead a blameless life. They are the ones at the kopitiam blaming the politicians, their employer, their colleagues, their family, and whoever else for the problems that they face. They are faultless. They know it all and they have nothing to learn [1]. It’s really quite sad because everything is beyond their control and everyone else is to be blamed. Denial, not the mistake itself, is the biggest mistake in life.

The only way for them to break the vicious circle is to gain awareness and (partial to full) acceptance of having screwed up. These factors are critical to our success.

Denial, not the mistake itself, is the biggest mistake…

Taking Action is two-fold.

  • Act to remedy. Assuming performance falls short of expectations, let’s go on to repair the damage. Address the issues raised by an unhappy customer or revise for a second attempt at a test. These are usually short-term acts.
  • Act to change. When things don’t go according to plan, look to minimise or prevent similar events in the future. To reduce the number of unhappy customers, we may have to review and improve customer experience (CX). To do better at tests, we may have to review and experiment with learning from video and learning from notes [2]. Change is usually for the longer term.

With experience, executives are learning to enact change in tandem, rather than sequentially. In some cases, this is reversed. Returning to the unhappy customer — what if we responded to her or him by saying we recognise our shortcoming, we have reviewed and improved our CX, and would like to make good on the episode of unhappiness.

There are many helpful concepts one can apply apart from the 3As. Two are:

While the focus here is on mistakes, we would also benefit from knowing that in the awareness stage, when we have put up a good performance. It is beneficial to know how we may repeat the what we’ve done right, same and do it better in future. 

Finally, we need to be mindful of how we communicate about mistakes, especially between colleagues. We have all made mistakes in how we communicate about mistakes. We’ll have to do better.

Mistakes aren’t usually music to our ears but they can be. Listen to the Biggest Mistake by the Rolling Stones.

Let’s get the new week rolling. Have a good one!


[1] “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” – (possibly adapted from) Albert Einstein.

[2] This is an insight from our team after taking Hubspot’s Inbound Certified.

[3] The Singapore military has an expanded view of this discussed in the article “Learning In The SAF’S Context” by Ramanathan, K. (2014).

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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