He blew up the factory! Jack Welch, as CEO of General Electric for two decades, grew the company to be the biggest in the world (before Microsoft and Google) and was voted “CEO of the Century” by his peers in the year 2,000.

But when he was 25 and a young engineer at GE, he was experimenting with a new formula for plastics, and created an explosion that took the roof off the factory. “I was scared stiff when I went to the manager. But he was mainly curious as to why I had done what I had done and what I had learnt from it. That real encouragement to get it right, rather than a punishment, had a profound effect on me.” Once he became CEO, Welch said, “We celebrated mistakes at a management gathering with 1,000 people in the room. A manager would get up and say why the environmentally sensitive light bulb or whatever it was had failed. Then we’d give them $1,000 or a TV or something, depending on the scale of the thing. The point was to share the learning and get smarter as an organization.”

We’re not giving away TVs, but we are giving you an opportunity to share with your colleagues, about what has gone wrong, and what has been learned.

To get things started, here’s one of my many mistakes. I was assigned to Dorchester Penitentiary in 1987 to lead a change management project. Dorchester was the last prison in Canada to be operating on the old security philosophy and organizational design from pre-1950. The rest had switched to a newer model that made correctional officers (guards) responsible for both security and interacting with the inmates.

So we designed a three-week training program to both explain the “new” system (which had been in use elsewhere for decades) and modify some attitudes. Knowing a thing or two about change management, we hand-picked the 30 staff who attended the first course, and declared it a great success. We’d read John Kotter’s book on getting “early wins.” The second course, things weren’t going so well. It was like pulling teeth, my own, without the anesthetic. I guess the union had read Kotter as well, and their early win was to put 30 of their choices on the second course, to give us a rough time.

In frustration, several days into the course, I asked one of the correctional officers what the problem was. Guards are generally honest in their assessments. This solidly built 6’7” man stood up at the front of the class and said “We were told you were sent here as an ‘axe man’ to chop away at jobs, fire a bunch of us, and close the prison down.”

I immediately realized my mistake — I had not shared my intent, that we were there to modernize and improve the place, not close it down. How to recover? By a process which I still don’t understand, it occurred to me to pull up a chair and stand on it. At 5’3”, that put us about eye to eye. I said: “AXE MAN…look at me! The most I could ever be is a hatchet man.” The room dissolved in laughter, and then I went on to correct my mistake.

The rest of the course went well, the transition went well, and Dorchester remains a key part of the Correctional Service. It helped to have a little self-deprecatory humor, and a bit of learning from mistakes.

Watch this month for the “quote of the day.” They are reflections on making mistakes. Here’s one from Edward John Phelps, former controller of the U.S. Treasury, American Ambassador, and co-founder of the American Bar Association in the late 1800s: “The person who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.”

We invite you to share your mistakes, and your learning, via this blog.

Paul Crookall
Paul Crookall is editor emeritus of Canadian Government Executive.