Strengthening your team leaders by allowing deliberate mistakes

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Back in 2006 I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review about ‘The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes’. Initially, I was pushed towards finding out more about the this term deliberate mistake by my wife who at the time said to me something along the lines of, “sometimes you have got to let your team members fail in order for them to learn.”

I have thought about this a lot recently, particularly in the context of making change in schools. I am and have been really fortunate to work with some brilliant educators; super enthusiastic and keen to make a difference. Essentially, I see my role in bringing the best out of them in allowing them to do so. This is where deliberate mistakes fit in.

A colleague may propose or suggest a change in a meeting. You are not convinced that this is a good idea but you decide to keep your thoughts to yourself and allow them to go on. Through experience you are aware of the pitfalls and the problems that may be associated with this change but hold back on making comment. Let them give it a go, you think to yourself, this change is not high cost and will not have a significant detrimental effect on the school, staff, students and / or parents. In letting your colleague go on with the suggested change, you promise yourself that you will keep an eye on it.

A few weeks later, as you knew it would, the change effort now encounters problems. You have allowed a deliberate mistake. So, what is the benefit?

This is an opportunity to work alongside your colleague and work through the problems that are now being encountered. The key to the learning, however, is putting them in charge of fixing the problem that they have created. If you take over, then learning will not happen and your colleague will not be able to develop as better leader. This is also an opportunity to put your colleague, who may be an aspiring, new or experienced leader on the frontline of leadership in letting them answer the questions and concerns that they are now facing. In essence, you are making sure that they take responsibility for the situation that has been created whilst being there to mentor and guide them through it but not do the work for them.

Allowing deliberate mistakes is a fantastic learning opportunity. We can not only reflect on the experience but, done correctly, those who wish to lead change get to fully take ownership and accountability for leading others and the impact that comes with it. As teachers, we do this type of practice with our students to create powerful learning opportunities. We need to do it more with aspiring, new and experienced leaders so we can all keep learning.

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