'Blame culture' that stifles the creative impulse

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The Independent Online
Some mistakes are "stupid" and others "intelligent", according to an occupational psychology firm, writes Barrie Clement.

Wearing a black bra under a white blouse, or spelling rabbit with three "Bs" are just plain daft, but we can learn from other types of error, according to the Oxford-based consultants Pearn Kandola.

Based on an analysis of a series of articles in the Independent on Sunday, with the theme "My biggest mistake", psychologists Michael Pearn, Chris Mulrooney and Tim Payne concluded that it was time organisations found a more positive way of dealing with mistakes.

Referring to them as "failures, boobs, slip-ups and disasters" was not helpful, and reprimanding employees often meant that creativity was stifled.

Fear of committing errors at work discouraged experimentation and helped to produce a "blame culture". But mistakes could constitute "powerful and unique learning opportunities", according to a paper presented by the consultants to the annual occupational psychology conference of the British Psychological Society.

One "intelligent" mistake, revealed in the Independent on Sunday, took place in 1983 when businessman Peter Webber turned down an opportunity to invest in the Chicago Rib Shack chain of restaurants. Within six months the Shacks were catering for 8,000 customers a week at pounds 12-a-head, and by 1987 were making a profit of more than pounds 1m a year. Mr Webber says he is highly unlikely to make a similar mistake again.

Gerald Ratner, the jeweller, conceded he was wrong to expand into the United States. He wrote the piece before he famously conceded that his chain of shops sold "crap" - arguably one of the seminal errors committed by a businessman.

The psychologists said that "intelligent" mistakes can be made through a lack of clear goals, information overload, making assumptions, and concentrating on part of the information. People also slip up if they take decisions under stress, or fail to monitor situations. All of which, the consultants say, are "learning" mistakes.