How COVID-19 has underlined the golden rule of making mistakes

Mistakes are central to business growth and success - we all make them, and more often than not, we shouldn’t feel too bad about them. After all, it’s hard to learn how to do things right if you don’t do something wrong every now and then. As Alexander Pope observed: “To err is human.”

The golden rule to mistakes, is the only unforgiveable mistake is the same one made twice. As Einstein reputedly remarked, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and not expecting the same result. Repeat offenders reveal themselves to be either incapable of learning or sadly, unwilling to do so.

Our collective learning curve during the COVID-19 pandemic has been notably steep, and in some instances, downright vertiginous. All sorts of mistakes have been made amid the tumult of the pandemic, and it’s interesting to reflect on what we may have gained from the experience of reaching decisions amongst a cascade of major challenges.

This is especially true for those with whom the buck stops. For many people within SMEs – and, indeed, within smaller divisions in larger organisations – the prospect of committing a significant error comes with the territory. So what has business life in the eye of an unprecedented storm taught us about problems and our responses to them?


Different problems, different responses

A good starting point for dealing with problems is to break them down into different types. It doesn’t automatically follow that any given problem falls neatly into a single category, but these distinctions can at least help us frame what we’re dealing with as circumstances develop. For example:

  • Critical problems demand decision-making that’s both urgent and important. Needless to say, this category has appeared disturbingly prevalent of late. What’s needed here is a command style of approach – in so much as someone has to take responsibility and act, because doing nothing simply isn’t an option.
  • Tame problems are those where we know what has to be done and more or less understand how to do it. It’s tempting to infer that these have been scarce recently, but we’ll see in due course that this hasn’t necessarily been the case. Tame problems require management – a task at which most businesspeople excel, given that it’s what they do every day.
  • Wicked problems feature multiple interacting elements that we don’t entirely comprehend and multiple possible courses of action with tough-to-predict outcomes. In the parlance of Donald Rumsfeld, they can be the stuff of “unknown unknowns”. They invite what’s increasingly referred to as authentic leadership – the essence of which is to concede that we don’t know everything but might know someone whose input we would welcome.


Problems and responses in the context of the pandemic

Countless problems during the COVID-19 crisis have seemed both urgent and important, thus qualifying as critical. As suggested earlier, however, a problem can be critical and tame, critical and wicked or even all three as we gradually get to grips with it – as the following examples from the pandemic demonstrate.

Nightingale hospitals - here, the problem was that all the evidence suggested a crippling lack of bed space. The response was to task the army with constructing emergency hospitals - with the desired outcome clearly defined, a suitably skilled organisation carrying out the work with  money essentially no object, this was ultimately a tame problem that necessitated management.

Test and Trace - this might also have the air of a ‘tame’ problem, but it’s one that becomes ‘wicked’ once local capacity has been overwhelmed. Test and Trace is a system of interrelated and interdependent parts, which means that there’s plenty of scope for unintended consequences – which is why attempts to carve the puzzle into supposedly straightforward pieces hasn’t done the trick so far.

Ventilators- in this case, again, initial impressions may have indicated a problem in part ‘critical’ and in part ‘tame’. In the final reckoning, though, the response that we might therefore have expected – taking command and throwing resources at the issue – wasn’t quite what we got. With numerous teams coming up with creative design solutions, and the development of new therapies reducing demand in tandem, this assumed many of the qualities of a ‘wicked’ problem with an array of correct answers.


The right answers to the right questions

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has argued that people are seldom short of answers for long but habitually produce answers to questions that they don’t really understand. In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he reasoned that we frequently arrive at decisions by relying on evidence that we “can neither explain nor defend”.

We tend to do this, Kahneman said, because we would rather answer an easier question than confess that we don’t understand a more complex one. This emphasises one of the principal goals that any individual or organisation should strive to achieve in the midst of crisis: identifying the right answer to the right question.

It’s unlikely, of course, that this noble objective has been  consistently realised during the turmoil of 2020. Yet that’s why hindsight isn’t just a wonderful thing; it’s also the best way to learn.

Every business has absorbed some uncommonly harsh lessons during the past year or so. There should be no small comfort in the fact that as long as these errors haven’t proven catastrophic – and, crucially, as long as they aren’t made again – the experience, however unpleasant, ought to have considerable value over the longer term.


Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity and Ingenuity Learning Support Development Officer at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE). David Falzani MBE is a Professor at HGIIE and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.