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A healthy mistake culture: lessons from our Digital Transformation team

Last year I forgot the name of a new team member. I had a complete blank. And what’s worse, it happened when I was introducing them at a programme team meeting – in front of about 40 people! I was mortified. Obviously, I apologised profusely. And I made sure I changed my process so that I now always have notes in front of me whenever I welcome a new member to the team.

Being open about mistakes doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. In many areas of life, we’re encouraged to always present the best version of ourselves, which doesn’t leave much room for showing weakness. Demonstrating fallibility at work can be particularly tough. In some workplaces, it would be unthinkable.

Happy, safe and valued

Many organisations are now embracing ‘psychological safety’, a concept developed by Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmonson, which encourages a workplace environment where people can be themselves, speak openly, and admit mistakes without fear of repercussions.

In practice, this takes time and effort – a really conscious, proactive effort – to make sure this is not just talk but is truly ingrained in team culture. And in my experience as a leader in the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS), it’s absolutely worth it.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so it’s a good time to reflect on this and to recognise that the most important thing here is our people’s wellbeing at work. People should feel happy, safe and able to be themselves at work, and a healthy mistake culture is a big part of this.

Having employees that feel psychologically safe at work also brings many organisational benefits. A team that feels happy, safe and valued, and that sees their work as meaningful, is more likely to get the job done well. A growth mindset and culture – rather than a blame culture – means teams are more likely to collaborate well, share knowledge, and learn and apply new skills.

The challenge of digital transformation

I lead PDS’s Digital Transformation directorate. The digital transformation environment is naturally quite pressurised. You’re often operating under the weight of a lot of ambitions and expectations. In a digital team, and maybe particularly digital transformation, we need to be comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and the possibility of making mistakes.

For me, as a leader, role-modelling fallibility is a starting point, being open about my own mistakes, saying “we’re all human, and so am I”. This needs to be backed up by other practices to allow the team to explore their experiences too. In our Digital Transformation directorate, we’ve been very intentional about this. When we get together as a team, we have open, respectful discussions and we learn together from our mistakes.

Growth mindset and failing fast

One of our values at PDS is curiosity so we apply this to our mistakes. We frame them as opportunities – a learning problem. By working through these as a team, digesting what went wrong, asking the right questions to work out why, we add meaning to our roles. We recognise that we’re all learning, and we’re all growing, all the time, and that by taking this approach we improve how we achieve outcomes in our work.

We also take inspiration from ‘failing fast ’culture, where early testing helps to spot issues before they become significant problems or blockers. Mistakes can be a positive when we spot them early – we can fix them quickly, often saving time and money in the long-term.

Of course, none of this is to say we celebrate mistakes – we want to learn from these to make sure the same mistake doesn't happen again. It’s also not about being reckless and taking unreasonable risks. But what we don’t want is a situation where people won’t take educated risks and won’t display curiosity because they’re scared of failure.

The value of a team

If you have a culture where fallibility is accepted, a natural consequence is that you recognise the value of a team. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The joy of a team is that we can combine our different skills to be better together.

A lack of blame culture also encourages collaboration in a team. If the possibility of being wrong isn’t a bad thing, the team feels more comfortable challenging each other, saying “I don't really understand why you've done it that way” or “have you thought about doing this instead?”.

How is it all going?

Returning to the crucial question of our team’s culture and wellbeing, it’s good to measure how safe your team are at any time. Every month we do a short team health survey. Each team member rates how they’re feeling on factors including ‘the team has got my back’ and ‘I feel safe to be me’. There’s also space to share any specific feedback with me – good or bad – and people do use it. As we’ve been more and more intentional about building a ‘psychologically safe’ culture, the team health score has consistently improved.

So, my message this Mental Health Awareness Week is to make your teams feel safe at work and consider that a healthy mistake culture is one important way to do this. Approach it consciously and deliberately, but it will soon start to be become very instinctive.



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