A ceramic bowl falls from soapy grasp and lies in multiple pieces on the floor.
A customer emails to say that she’s “going in a different direction” and will no longer be using your services.
A groom joyously shatters a linen-wrapped glass placed under foot by his best man to applause and shouts of Mazel Tov!
What is it about these and similar events, some rooted in antiquity and others by happenstance or inattention that forms the basis for the most vital of business lessons?
Let’s start by attending a wedding.
To an outsider, it is undoubtedly an odd moment. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the bride and groom face the congregation, the best man places a wrapped glass on the floor behind the groom, the groom lifts his foot and dramatically (emphatically) shatters the glass. Unusual for a synagogue service, the room erupts in applause and congratulatory shouts.
The standard explanation is that the groom shatters the glass as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. I was taught, however, that there is a deeper meaning – more significant for the soul of people and organizations alike.
It is told that God splits each soul in two, one-part male and the other female. It is the mission of each half-souls, once born, to find and complete each other. At the time, such a division might seem tragic, but upon further examination, it is only apart that each has an opportunity to learn and grow…in other words, to become worthy of each other and strong enough to build a future.
So it is at the wedding, that we celebrate the division which, in and of itself, set each part of the pair on a course to become the instrument of each other’s completion.
Shards on the Floor
The moment seems to unfold in slow motion. A bowl or glass slips through your fingers and crashes to the floor. Most of us, after a muttered (or not) curse, sweep up the debris, throw it out and move on. To do so, however, would be to miss an opportunity to practice the Japanese art of kintsugi, the art of joinery.
This is how Christopher Jobson describes Kintsugi:
The Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to visibly incorporate the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it. The process results in something more beautiful than the original.
 Author of Kintsugi: The Art of Broken Pieces
From an almost impossibly young age, we are taught to hide imperfection and disguise weakness. In restaurants the world over, a multitude of mistakes are routinely covered by sauce.
Nowhere is this lesson put into effect on a more regular basis than in business.
- Construction companies miss a line item in an estimate, but make up the difference on an auspiciously-timed change order.
- An angry customer is talked out of leaving with a discount and a well-worded apology, thereby putting the issue to bed.
- Management uses a generous severance package to head off an impending lawsuit by an aggrieved, now-former employee.
In each case, the temptation is to breathe a heavy sigh of relief and move on. And therein lies the problem. Resisting the temptation, both personally and professionally, to put it to bed (whatever “it” happens to be) as yet another problem solved can be the difference between success and failure, between being mired and breaking free, between aspiration and resignation, between joy and whatever lesser state can characterize one’s days.
Resisting temptation is never easy, especially when the sense of relief is so palpable. Even so, in my 30 years of working with entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that the most successful people and organizations in the world look at mistakes a little differently. I’ve broken their approach, which I’ve consistently seen employed to great effect, into four principles:
- Elevate the Art of Communication. Near miss conversations are never easy, but they can be exceedingly productive…that is unless all the necessary parties are too busy covering their own rear ends. As a leader, it is your job to demonstrate, consistently, that the organization’s best interest lies not in a witch hunt but rather in the creation of a learning environment. Once people get used to the idea that mistakes aren’t about “what happened then” but rather about “what happens next” and that they are a valuable part of the “how can we avoid this in the future” conversation, any company becomes transformed into a learning company.
- Cultivate the Near-Miss Stories. Train supervisory personnel in the art of nonfiction storytelling. Every department has those instances when things went wrong. A deadline was missed, a client was unhappy, violence was done to a budget. You can’t let the lessons learned from a near miss stay stuck only with the lead actors. It is a lost opportunity indeed if one PM thinks to herself “I’ll never do that again” while the other PMs remain ignorant of the landmine that may lay ahead of them.
- Hold a Failure Summit for Each Department. Make it a focused, mandatory-attendance, off-site day. Tell the stories. Review the “aha” moments. Develop strategies for steering clear of landmines. Celebrate together the relief of bullets dodged.
- Incorporate the Lessons into Your DNA. Take the lessons learned and stories told from your Failure Summit and emphasize them in the weekly meetings and personal touchpoints that took the place of your annual personnel reviews. Those stories – the good 0nes – should become the stuff of legend.
And so it is, perhaps, that this year your organization could think of something broken as the glass at a wedding or the opportunity for art, rather than as a tragedy to be forgotten. After all there is, as Ernest Hemmingway once observed, something eternal about having “strength in the broken places.”