Making Space for Other People’s Mistakes

Making a space in which mistakes can be made, creates a possibility for learning, for developing trust and a space for experimenting.

Theatre improv is a great space for learning more than just improv. It’s an opportunity for experimentation, making mistakes and building with what others have offered you. Improv schooled me this week in a richer more complex understanding of the art of embracing mistakes in space (I’m a learner improviser). We created a new space by pacing our scenes. It allowed us to take more risks, time to observe and to connect with the other performer. I embodied bolder more interesting characters, my performance improved and I worked better with my scene partner. It provided space to make bigger slower mistakes, rather than the fleeting ones, quickly forgotten. I was reminded of Sir James Dyson in conversation with Tim Ferriss,

“We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path.”

Sir James Dyson

That is improv.

It’s also a willingness to make a space to try things out with the express objective to learn from what fails. That needs a space free of judgement, criticism or negative consequence. Sir James Dyson made 5127 prototypes before finalising the first Dyson vacuum cleaner. That’s a lot of mistakes or failures before stratospheric success.

Often when mistakes and/or failing is discussed the emphasis is on your own willingness to make mistakes. It’s valuable to embrace your mistakes, to learn from them and to lean into the possibility of making them. It’s equally powerful to make space for the mistakes of those you are working with.

Back to the improv example, there’s nothing more stilted than working with and watching another performer that is unwilling to make a mistake. They stumble over their words and ideas in an attempt to find the “right”, or best thing to say. They stay small when they should be going big. Embracing a mistake is often when the performers take the scene to the next level. Getting inventive and trusting that the other has their back in this moment. Everyone learns from any mistake, everyone benefits from the space this allows, importantly trust is built and the scene keeps moving.

In a work situation, when a manager is not making space for mistakes, is a fraught and unproductive space. It impacts on everyone. The manager in their effort to eliminate mistakes micromanages and allows less time for their own work. Their subordinate, ends up feeling self-conscious, untrusted, less likely to learn, grow, and be improved by the work. They’re more likely to hide a mistake they make – which is usually even more detrimental than the original mistake.

The opposite of micromanaging mistakes out, is similar to two good improvisors going into a scene together, trusting the other to have their back and working it out together if things go awry. The manager, making space for mistakes, develops trust with their subordinate who learns more advancing faster (reducing the manger’s workload), and probably working more efficiently. There’s a willingness to bring mistakes to attention, work through them and learn. The manager, acknowledging that mistakes happen, demonstrates a willingness to work it out together. A side-note: the manager should also be willing to acknowledge their own mistakes publicly. Modelling the same behaviour they expect from those they’re working with – it works both ways.

The challenge then is to consider how you might make space for other people’s mistakes. What might you allow to enter the scene when you do?


Picture by Skylar Kang on Pexels [cropped]

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