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Isolate the Problem, Not the Person


In “Performance at the Limit, Business Lessons from Formula 1 Motor Racing” we emphasize the importance of creating a ‘Winning Culture.’ At its heart is instilling a “NO BLAME PHILOSOPHY” across the racing team. Mistakes by drivers, mechanics, engineers, or the pitstop crew are inevitable during a grueling, pressured 9-month, 22-races on 5 continents season.

In 2005, we interviewed the Head of the WilliamsF1 pitstop crew at the 1991 Portuguese Grand Prix about a tire change mishap on the right rear wheel that cost Nigel Mansell an important victory. We asked how the team dealt with the ‘human’ error. His reply, “WE ISOLATED THE PROBLEM, NOT THE PERSON!” The pitstop procedure was modified and continuously develped as technology changed.

There is another story about making a mistake, probably apocryphal, that many have shared. It dates from the late 1940’s-1950’s when Thomas J. Watson Sr. built IBM into the largest manufacturer of electric typewriters and data processing equipment in the world.

An IBM salesman had failed to win the bid for an important $1 million contract. He received a note that the CEO wished to see him. Upon entering Mr. Watson’s office, he laid an envelope containing his resignation letter on the boss’s desk. Without looking at it and guessing what it contained, Watson told him to take a seat and asked, “What happened?”

The sales rep outlined how the deal evolved, highlighting with the help of hindsight the mistakes he may have made and what he could have done differently. When he finished, he thanked Watson for the opportunity to work for IBM, and he rose to leave the office and the company.

Watson met him at the door and handed him back the envelope saying, “Why would I accept your resignation when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?”

From my experience in business, and often on the tennis court, with self-reflection we can learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

Having said that, I also appreciate Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice, “Learn from the mistakes of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

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