How Fast Do You Recover from Mistakes?

I prefer not to make mistakes. Yet, I am human. I make mistakes all the time.

Making mistakes is not the problem. It’s the recovering from mistakes that might be the problem. How quickly you recover from mistakes is partly about seeing the need to adapt, your ability to respond to a changed situation, and partly about your expertise, which provides you options for a changed response.

Different mistakes require different recognition and adaptability.

If I make a mistake in a recipe, I might be able to recover before I start the baking or the cooking. I’ve substituted flax seeds and water for eggs when I ran out of eggs. That worked.

More often, I make mistakes in my writing or in my speaking. I’d talked about the line, “Those aren’t the droids you’re looking for…” and attributed it to Star Trek. Oops! Luckily, someone yelled out, “Star Wars!” I stopped, apologized, and continued. A little embarrassed, but otherwise fine. In my writing, I often don’t see mistakes, which is why I use editors. (I had a difficult time seeing my mistakes as a developer, too. That’s why pairing or code reviews worked so well for me.)

Some mistakes require more thought and take longer to recover from.

  • If you miss clues, you encounter a delay in realizing you have a mistake to recover from.
  • If your mental models don’t match the situation, you might encounter a delay before you realize you’ve made a mistake.
  • If you suffer from FEAR, you might create delays that prevent you from realizing you’ve made a mistake.

For me, delays are the biggest problem in recovering from mistakes. The longer it takes for me to realize I’ve made a mistake, the longer it takes me to recover.

I had a humorous instance of a delay due to missing clues just today. I’ve been traveling the past few weeks, so I haven’t been in my office to print anything. I queued a one-page color pdf for the printer. I realized two hours later (!) I didn’t have anything on the printer. Yes, two hours.

I then realized that before I left on my travels, I must have said to print in black and white, and the print driver software either didn’t remember or wasn’t robust enough to remind me again.

My recovery was slow in this case. Not too slow, but slow enough that I laughed at myself.

In this case, it took me a while to recognize I had a situation that required a change. I could respond easily by standing up, walking over to the printer and seeing what it said on the panel, and then I had the ability to change (I had a printer cartridge and the expertise to change it).

This was an easy recovery. Other recoveries are not easy or fast. For me, it’s about the feedback delays. The shorter the feedback delay, the faster I am to recover. The longer the feedback delay, the longer it takes me to recover.

That is the question this week: How fast do you recover from mistakes?

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