We all make mistakes. Then there are those times when it’s A REALLY BIG mistake.
You know the kind: Something goes horribly wrong and everyone gets together after and tries to figure out, “What the hell just happened?”
One researcher says many big mistakes – such as the recent FTX cryptocurrency debacle and the embarrassingly public Oscar flub in 2017 – could be avoided, or at least minimized, if people paid more attention to certain factors that lead up to disasters.
Business leaders, people managers and anyone in leadership roles who recognize the potential for bigger mistakes – the kind that can hurt the company’s reputation, people or future – can avoid them. That’s according to the late Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies.
Here are four factors Perrow says lead to big mistakes – plus tips on how to safeguard against them:
Many accidents and mistakes are triggered by experienced people who were so confident of their skills and oversight that they became complacent.
For instance, wildland firefighters who’ve been on the job about 10 years are the most likely to be injured or killed. The reason: That’s about when they think they’ve seen it all so they falsely believe they can win against it all.
You need confident leaders in charge of teams and projects. But you also want to maintain oversight in processes and decision-making.
As an example, in the publishing industry, it’s said, “Every great editor has an editor.” A colleague looks at copy before the audience does. Egos get put aside, as it could even be a less experienced writer editing a seasoned writer’s work.
Tip: Encourage employees at all levels to get a colleague’s insight in areas where they don’t have boss oversight.
Lack of focus on repetitive tasks
Before most big mistakes, a small mistake is usually made because people struggle to focus while doing simple, repetitive tasks. So details fall through the cracks.
At the Oscars – when the presenter announced the wrong winner for Best Picture – some probably easily got distracted or star struck while just passing out envelopes.
To avoid losing focus, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers have trained, but inexperienced, sailors on crews that handle launching and recovering the crafts. Why? Inexperienced workers are often more attentive. They don’t want to screw up.
Tip: Encourage employees and teams to ask for some novice viewpoints in small and large projects.
Failure to evolve
Outdated policies, concerns and processes that don’t fit current conditions are often a key factor behind big mistakes.
For instance, just two people, carrying black briefcases, know who the Oscar winners are before the envelope is open. That’s because word got out on the winners hours before the event in 1940. There are better ways to maintain secrecy these days, and if more than two distracted people knew the winners at that Oscar event, the mistake might have been avoided. Or it at least could’ve been resolved before the wrong person made a speech!
Tip: Regularly ask employees – or encourage department managers to ask – “What process or policy doesn’t make sense?” Vet out what’s outdated and work to modernize the process or policy.
Most mishaps happen near the end of a project, event or mission because people relax when they think they’re over the hump.
For example, the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened after drillers finished the well and were ready to remove their equipment. The job seemed practically done to them.
Tip: When people are nearing the end of a project or event, remind them to bring in fresh eyes and perspective to make sure eveyrone is still focused on the right things.