The right to make mistakes has a little taste of “double standards”

“Learn from mistakes” is a hot new slogan. But is the error really accepted? Nothing is less certain, and the answer to this question depends not only on culture, but also on position in the hierarchical chart.

When we consider the successes of SpaceX, which make its competitors green with envy, and we take a step back from the buzz that almost systematically accompanies each launch of a Falcon 9 with its cluster of 60 Starlink satellites, we realizes that to reach such records, Elon Musk did not skimp on the means but especially on the risks. I have spoken about it several times in this blog, and the results of the failures which preceded all the successes should not be forgotten: but it is precisely the famous “Try and fail and try again” (or “Try and fail and learn ”) that the American firm practices with tenacity which made it possible to transform its initial failures into resounding successes. Since failure is most of the time the consequence of an error, accepting the risk of failure is therefore also accepting to make one or more errors. In theory…

I have already mentioned in this blog the impact of the cultural dimension in the organization of work, and I am not the only one to have opposed the taste for risk across the Atlantic to European reluctance. And I do not believe that decreeing the right to make mistakes in our industries is more than a posture intended to mask a situation which will hardly be able to change for a few generations.

In fact, faced with the successes achieved by those who take risks, there is hardly a hierarchical stratum which does not henceforth claim the “right to make mistakes”, which is laudable in itself, but the effects of error do not. are perceived and judged in the same way depending on the level of the stratum in the organization. Because the error at the highest level of management is seldom sanctioned as it should be (I refer the incredulous reader to the remarkable work of Ghislaine Ottenheimer “The untouchables”, which had nailed to the pillory Michel Bon, Jean-Marie Messier and Pierre Bilger). From a certain level of hierarchy, experience shows that errors have only a weak (or no) impact on the career, while the consequences are paid in the lower strata, which I had denounced in a blog post published in November 2020 (The comfort (for some) of “big” decisions).

Conversely, at a time when each euro counts in the financial balance sheet of companies, especially those where daily accounting has taken precedence over strategic vision, woe to the “clampin” who, encouraged to take a risk, commits the sacrilege of exceeding the budget allocated to it because the risk materialized. Between the commitment to respect the allocated budget and the encouragement to take risks, we are faced with a very difficult equation to solve these days … And when we get slapped on the fingers once for breaking the rule financial, we are no longer very inclined to start over: in the obsession with measurement that characterizes our time (and which goes hand in hand with the tropism of digitization), a few k € of overruns represent an immediately quantifiable fact, while the absence of risk-taking can only be measured in a very indirect and long-term way, by the yardstick of the markets lost in the face of those who have “dared”.

It was recently reflecting on this gap (one among many) between major declarations and reality on the ground that I remembered a book by Arthur Koestler which appeared in France in 1960, “Les somnambules”, un pavé of more than 600 pages (in pocket size!) that I had hesitated to open, frightened by the scale of the task: when I took the plunge, in 1973, barely read the first pages, I literally devoured what constitutes a veritable bible in the history of astronomy from antiquity to the present day, declined through the wanderings (which gradually became demonstrated physical laws) of philosophers and scholars from antiquity to our time. days, from Pythagoras to Galileo, passing through Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler and others less known. Everyone has built their theory both on the discoveries, but also on the mistakes made by their predecessors. The author considers that the researchers move forward a bit at random, like sleepwalkers, and that they are even sometimes overwhelmed by what they find (this was the case with Kepler and his famous laws). Current astronomical physics therefore owes its letters of nobility to all these initially erroneous theories.[1], then gradually revised in the light of measures made possible by technical progress. The book perfectly illustrates this sentence of Confucius: The wise man learns from his mistakes, the wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.

It would therefore be wise for error, often at the origin of the greatest progress[2], be accepted at all levels of the functional chains of our modern industrial organizations, keeping in mind the good old proverb: It is only those who do nothing who are never wrong.



[1] Note however that in the 5th century BC, Philolaos of Crotone was the first to declare that the Earth was not the center of the universe: visionary or genius?

[2] This is also the case with medicine in particular.


Source: UsineNouvelle – Actualités A la une by www.usinenouvelle.com.

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