Learning from Google’s Mistakes

The Hutch Report

Everybody uses Google’s search engine daily, however, in addition to using their tools people should be learning from what Google does as a company, especially when it comes to failure.

When kids are learning to speak, walk, or do most of the actions we take for granted as adults, they are never impeded by the fact that they have previously failed their attempts. They just keep modifying their actions until they succeed.  So why and when does this change?  At what age do we suddenly have the realization that if we don’t do things perfect, we are less of a person?

You never hear a parent say to a baby as it is learning to walk, “You fell again, what’s the problem with you?” Unfortunately, at some moment this behaviour changes. You can see it on thousands of baseball little league fields, hockey rinks, basketball courts, singing contest, dancing contests, etc. A boy drops the ball and suddenly hears it from his coach, his teammates or some stranger in the stand yelling, “Bench that kid!” This instills the thought that we are not allowed to make a mistake.  That is a lot of pressure to put on anyone.

We don’t consider this kind of behaviour as the norm because we know that there is a large amount of support from parents and educators. There are a number of companies and researchers looking to improve and discover new approaches to learning and teaching. However, the desire to win at all cost does often override the desire to accept one’s mistakes, embrace them and learn from them.

The problem is not failure in itself; it is how people perceive failure. It is how we are conditioned to deal with failure.  Just the sound of the word seems to evoke the connotation of something less than whole, something weak or bad. Of course it doesn’t feel great to be performing in front of someone and make a mistake.  Somehow it makes us feel inferior or less than perfect. But therein lies the negative perception. Quite often that fear of failure works negatively on our nervous system, which in turn decreases our chances of performing at a peak level.

If one can change their perception of failure or their definition of what it means to fail then there is probably a greater chance that they improve more rapidly and their chance of success in whatever endeavour they choose. In addition, they enjoy the process.

The classic example of someone’s positive perception of failure is that of Thomas Edison. When asked how he dealt with so many failures in trying to find the right filament for the light bulb, he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The Hutch Report

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1911: Inventor and physicist Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931) looking at a lightbulb (Photo by Nathan Lazarnick/George Eastman House/Getty Images)

Interestingly enough, the people who can embrace failure and take risks invent things; dare to do what others don’t because they are focused on the road to success in front of them. They don’t concern themselves with the failures they have left behind because in their minds it is just a part of the learning process. These failures don’t represent them.  Instead they are further clues on the road to getting to where they want.

Failure does not mean taking blind risks.  Failure is the result of taking a calculated risk.  It is that percentage of risk that results in a potential failure.  You analyze that result, make some changes and reduce your risk.  You do it again until your risk is eliminated and you succeed. The great Canadian Hockey player, Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take”. If you take yourself out of the game, you will never have a chance at winning.

In business the word failure has become synonymous with Silicon Valley, mainly because of the startup and risk taking culture it has developed. However, this is looking at failure on a larger scale. It happens on a much smaller scale daily.  It could be screwing up a dinner, getting a crossword puzzle wrong.  Giving the wrong answer to a question at a dinner party (maybe even the same one where the dinner was screwed up). People are bothered by these failures because it seems to be a reminder that they are somehow not perfect.

Perfection is a figment of the imagination (see our post).  Believing that perfection exists means believing that once achieved you cease to grow or learn.  Our lives are a journey of constant discovery and improvement. To set yourself the illusive goal of perfection, you set yourself up for a string of never ending disappointments.

There have been many strong statements regarding failure made by well-known personalities over the years. They should be used as a great source of motivation towards changing our own perceptions on failure.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” – Napoleon Hill

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping-stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” – Johnny Cash

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J. K.  Rowling

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”-Bill Gates

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”-James Joyce

The Hutch ReportSo what does all this have to do with Google? Google has to be considered an incredible success on so many levels however they have not achieved it by accident.  Google is one of the few companies that actually see making mistakes as a portal to learning and discovery. They have gone so far as to create a process, which they call a “Postmortem.” A postmortem is the process their team undertakes to reflect on what they learned from their most significant undesirable events. Incidents may happen, but not all require a postmortem. Therefore, the first important step is to 1. Identify the most important problems.

Once they have identified the problem their next step is 2. Work together to create a written record for what happened, why, its impact, how the issue was mitigated or resolved, and what to do to prevent the incident from recurring. They ask themselves questions such as; what went well, what didn’t go well, where did we get lucky, and what can we do differently next time?

Lastly, Google has understood that being blamed for an incident will only promote self-pity and become very unproductive. So they made a conscious decision to apply step 3. Promote growth, not blame. By removing blame from a postmortem, team members feel a greater psychological sense of safety. This enables them to escalate issues without fear. By assuring team members that they will not be punished for the mistakes they made, a greater trust is built. These three steps reposition failure as an opportunity for growth and development rather than as a setback.

These are steps that anybody can apply to their own daily lives. Learn from Google’s mistakes and look at every failure as a chance to discover something new, learn something, or improve something and you will in turn make yourself much happier.