What happens when you make a mistake?

I’m re-reading Atul Gawande’s fabulous book The Checklist Manifesto. If you haven’t read it, you need to get a copy. It’s a real page turner. The book discusses the complex work of surgeons, airline pilots, construction workers and others who competently perform their jobs, acknowledging one fact – that a mistake they make can cost a life – even their own. The author strips away the need to assign blame and fault (it’s counterproductive and unhelpful) and outlines a path for understanding why mistakes are made and how to prevent as many of them as possible. Gawande’s prescription, as you can probably guess, is the use of checklists. What you may find interesting, however, is his description of the checklist implementation process in hospitals and other healthcare settings, where nurses and other professionals challenge the physician-centric culture and ask whether a physician has washed her hands, or if he is making the incision in the correct appendage. Great stuff! Shows that it’s hard for all of us to admit we make mistakes. But necessary and life saving.

Research administration is complex work, but it does not have the immediate impact of heart or brain surgery. We are not landing planes, and in this we are fortunate. If we make a mistake, most times we are afforded the luxury of being able to address it and ameliorate its effects. The Management Craft blog has a fantastic post about making mistakes, and how to handle making a mistake as responsibly as possible. What I liked most about this post was the importance of treating others how you’d like to be treated when you make a mistake – which calls to mind the importance of creating an institutional culture which values integrity and honesty. Revealing errors and dealing with them quickly is vital in our profession, in order to maintain the integrity of the research enterprise.

New York Times post highlights the cost of not revealing an error – simply from a business perspective. Can you imagine, from a sponsored research point of view, if a “bag purchase” equivalent were ignored for as long, what the result would be? We need to praise our colleagues for recognizing errors, especially early on, to view them as symptoms to diagnose the systems that need fixing. When we recognize our own mistakes and ask for help, we are creating an organizational culture that values learning, integrity and problem solving. It also gives us the opportunity to share information – so that everyone is updated on new information or a more effective way to address a process or procedure.

In managing sponsored research resources, we realize that our work impacts the careers of our investigators, the safety of research participants, and the ability of our institutions to obtain and conduct sponsored research. The ability of research administrators to successfully – and with integrity – administer sponsored projects is at the heart of an institution’s research program.

Five things you can do right now to create a problem solving workplace:

1. Identify your team mates.

Everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes to check their work or someone to double check their budget before turning it in. Who is on your team? Identify at least one or two more people who will check your work when you are tired, or stressed so that you’ll know those silly mistakes will be caught before you turn your application in to the funder, or your progress report in to the foundation.

2. Admit your faults.

Where are your weak spots? No matter what you do, you always misspell certain words. Or particular formulas in Excel are hard to remember, or whatever it is – name it. Then create a solution that addresses the stress around this problem. Chances are you have repeated “mistakes” (financial, grammatical, etc) around these areas. Can you create a cheat sheet? Can your team mate catch the error? Can you use spell check?

3. Improve your planning.

Mistakes occur when there’s not enough time to budget, write, meet with investigators, heck – fill in the blank. Use your time management skills to guide investigators through the process of applying for grants, completing progress reports, etc. so that there are enough days and hours to get everything done without working until midnight strung out on coffee. (Granted, there’s only so much we can do without mind-control powers, but we can try!)

4. Ask for help.

It’s strange – sometimes, especially with very overpowering investigators, many of us want to sound like we know the answer to everything because it seems like that’s what the investigator wants. It’s ok to say you don’t know, but you’re going to find out. Just say when you’ll follow up and make sure you do it. Then ask for help – and get the answers you need.

5. Change one thing.

Can you see a pattern? Is there one issue that occurs often enough where you can identify a way to address a solution? Looking at the steps that occur in the chain of events that leads up to and after a mistake can help you identify an opportunity to change the outcome. Success is a powerful motivator.

2 thoughts on “What happens when you make a mistake?”

  1. Thanks for the book tip! I’ll add it to my reading list immediately.

    Regarding #2 above, I have a friend who often misspells certain words. In an effort to re-train herself, she makes them into her passwords so she is forced to learn the proper spelling. How ingenious!

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