Scared to take a risk

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The Independent Online
IN THESE days of highly competitive business it is endlessly repeated that innovation is the key to success, but this is hardly a risk-free process. Mistakes will be made, yet business tends to favour the safe and be suspicious of the unknown, writes Roger Trapp

This attitude amounts to what is generally known as "the blame culture". In many organisations - even some of those that are trying to present themselves to the world as "learning organisations" - this can be so powerful that individuals feel compelled to avoid risk in everything they do.

And yet even in situations like that, mistakes are made. The fascination of hearing how things can go wrong was part of the motivation behind The Independent on Sunday column "My Biggest Mistake". The column proved so popular that it became the basis of a book, and now a team of consultants from Pearn Kandola, the occupational psychologists, has used it in testing the extent to which we can learn from mistakes.

Their book, Ending the Blame Culture, argues that companies do not have to be stuck in this trap. Instead, Michael Pearn, Chris Mulrooney and Tim Payne claim that they can escape the blame cultures that create stagnation through conformity and risk avoidance, and produce "gain cultures" where mistakes are tolerated and even encouraged as a way of pursuing innovation, change and improvement.

In the book they repeat a statement made by Soichoro Honda, the head of Honda, about success representing "the 1 per cent of work which results from the 99 per cent that is called failure". Similarly, the president of an American steel mill is quoted as saying: "You've got to have an atmosphere where people can make mistakes. If we're not making mistakes, we're not going anywhere."

Mr Pearn and his colleagues take care to make a distinction between "undesirable mistakes and intelligent mistakes". The challenge facing individuals is to understand what lies behind mistakes and to prevent their recurrence.