The Error Paradox: How an intolerance of mistakes can increase the likelihood of failure

As a nation, we are not the most tolerant at the best of times, especially when it comes to mistakes. From our early school days, the red pen is unsheathed to scar our work with little wounds which for some may never fully heal. Yes there are the soothing ointments too. The ticks which point us towards our strengths do exist, but it can take some time to appreciate these with sufficient intensity and humility. Half our politicians don’t seem to know what they’re good at. The other half are terrified to acknowledge the slightest weakness. When a politician strikes the balance, then we’ll have a leader. Perhaps David Miliband, having conveniently disappeared from the scrutiny of the British public for a couple of years, will don some sort of cape and fly back in to play saviour in 2015. It wouldn’t surprise me. Perhaps that’s been his plan all along.

Anyway, back to the point. It is probably a cerebral leap to suggest that the red pen creates an antipathy for mistakes, yet there are numerous examples in contemporary politics which hint at such an influence. None more so than in the misguided and confused policies coming from Messrs Gove, Duncan-Smith and Cameron. It seems that an antipathy towards mistakes has led to arrogance. Arrogance which, when wielded through a pen of its own, risks considerably more damage to its recipients than was laid to down to the hand of its author some years before. It is an arrogance which is out of touch. Just as Ian Duncan Smith will never subject himself to living on £50 a week despite proposing it, David Cameron will never read the Leveson report in its entirety, despite being the man who commissioned it. It is perhaps easier to retain the the courage of his conviction and refute its findings like a headmaster dismisses his class. And on the subject of education, Michael Gove will never subject himself to the performance incentives he is looking to inflict on teachers (what better way to turn the joy of education into a box-ticking exercise). No matter who endorses him with a vote of No Confidence, he will not step down. He may admit to having made mistakes, but not the ones that vindicate a change of Education Secretary. By the time he even entertains the idea that he might be misguided, it is likely to be rather too late.

This pattern is not helped by the reaction to mistakes of us Joe Public, particularly towards those whose professional competence is sound. Where at the top, error antipathy breeds arrogance, for the public it breeds vilification. A leader in this country does need to stray far to convert indiscretion into discreditation. It is true that David Laws made serious errors of judgement. Does that by default mean taking an economic titan out of the game at a time when the game is titanically difficult? We are too quick to reach for our own red pen – we vilify, dispense and move on. We demand resignations like the press hand out free newspapers – in a frenzy and without much thought. Perhaps it’s our way of remembering our own school ticks. Perhaps it’s the same quick fix that impels us to eat junk food – a feel good hit, a moment of shame, a brief moment of respite, then the next Big Mac. This is a misguided exercise. If we took a more balanced view, we might better separate the Laws from the Goves. Britain does not need vultures right now. It needs lions. Lions that avoid the scraps on a carcass, pursue the catch that keeps the belly full,  and have the heart to recognise when their tactics are flawed.

We have a role to play in our recovery too. We perpetuate the major failures by refusing to condone the small mistakes. Leaders do the same by refusing to hold their hands up or course correct. Why would they? We, the public, call attempts to do so laughable. Political posturers call them U-turns. We have no mechanism for navigating the imperfection inherent in negotiating challenging times. Rolls-Royce engines were not invented without flaws. Nor are economic or social policies. We are too quick either to throw the baby out with the bathwater or to leave it in there until its poor skin is swollen thick.

We need a balance. I just can’t make myself believe that hospitals fail because they don’t care about patients. However, I can see absolutely how they fail because they are part of culture that is determined to sweep mistakes under the carpet. Rogue traders don’t often lose billions in one transaction. They do so in trying to rectify their first act of stupidity without anyone knowing about it. They fear the red pen so much that they simply put their school books over it, hoping it will go away. It seldom does. Complex successes require complex, turbulent and uncertain journeys. To navigate them fluidly, we must find a way to de-stigmatise mistakes instead of trying to pretend they never happen.


There are 5 typos in this blog, possibly more. Should I throw in the towel?