Why It’s Crucial to Embrace Our Mistakes

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to have made it through the Fall deadlines for NIH. Ok, just about. I have a few trailing applications but the onslaught of October 5th is over. You can understand why so many people like the pre-award process so much, because it’s a well-defined process of developing and submitting applications, with rules that are more predictable. Once you press the button, the application is in. Quite a sense of satisfaction.

However, any process or procedure in research administration (and the research enterprise as a whole) is prone to error. (Heck, any process involving one or more human beings is prone to error.) We know in our line of work that errors can be costly, affect compliance, the ability of our investigators to apply for and conduct their research, and the ability of our institutions to receive federal funds.

I worked with my colleagues to submit an R01 for October 5, and it was a repackaged submission sent to another agency. We took the detailed budget and transferred it into NIH format, and I never realized that it should have been a modular budget. Tons of people reviewed the budget and we all missed it, because we all made assumptions about the information. One person thought it might need to be modular, but didn’t speak up. I looked at the total budget and didn’t look at the yearly totals. It went in as a detailed budget, and we got a warning about the format.
The PI chose to take his chances (he thought it was optional and not required). It got through CSR, but it was a stupid mistake and one we could have caught. I’ll never make it again.

Why is it ok to admit mistakes? Why is it necessary?

With so much at stake, identifying errors and fixing them in a timely manner is not only crucial, it is our responsibility. We are not expected to be perfect, but we should be expected to be honest about what we know and what we don’t yet know as we demonstrate our commitment to our work.
It’s necessary to maintain communication, serve our investigators and move research forward — but we need to create a culture that values honesty and doesn’t denigrate people for admitting an error.

Errors are an opportunity to learn – if I don’t know I’ve made a mistake, I can’t learn how to do it right the next time. I try to focus on fixing the problem (when I’m in the situation) and afterward, learning as much as possible to prevent making the same mistake in the future.

Errors are an opportunity to create new systems or learn new ways of interaction – if there is an easier or faster way to do something which increases accuracy, or a job aid that prevents a problem from occurring, an error can be prevented in the future.

Our PI understood what happened here, and there are several steps I can take to prevent simple mistakes like this one. I’ve edited my pre award checklist to make it easier to use, and frankly, it’s important to just stop and think, not to move too fast and miss steps during these stages of an application. I also learned that it’s important to think through the new application requirements even more carefully when repackaging an application, as it is tempting to think that all the documents are prepared as they should be.

Dr. Atul Gawande from Harvard University recently published his latest work, called The Checklist Manifesto. In it he describes the need to devise checklists and systems to aid individuals who perform difficult work and why it is important and even lifesaving to do so. he points out that human error is normal, but it can be minimized. Most importantly, the book demonstrates that the open and honest discussion of how we correct errors is productive, and has the greatest impact.

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