How a Mistake Can Lead to a Clean Slate

When people discuss some of the most influential discoveries in history, there is a common saying: “All great discoveries are made by mistake.” If you think back to Columbus’ attempt to reach Asia by traveling West, the discovery of penicillin or other big discoveries, this saying rings true.

But what about those lesser “ah ha” moments that don’t go down in the history books? Sometimes, we can make great discoveries in the face of mistakes or accidents even in our personal and work lives. Here’s one from the Total Attorneys team.

A few weeks ago, one of our project managers showed us a great example of how mistakes at work can lead to new discoveries:

One of my ongoing Scrum Master fears has been to finally get confused enough switching between post-its, index cards and whiteboards to take a Sharpie to a whiteboard. Yesterday that fear became a reality, as I stood back to admire my handy work (a schedule grid that took up the entire whiteboard). I noticed that the pen in hand was a Sharpie, not a dry-erase marker. Well, Bart Simpson might have said “Doh!” but I said something a little lot more colorful.

But then that FAIL led to a brilliant discovery, so brilliant in fact that I just have to share. If you color over the Sharpie mark with a dry-erase pen, and then wipe the board, the dry-erase comes off and so does the “permanent” Sharpie mark. Just like that. Magic.

Rather than accepting defeat and tossing out the whiteboard with the trash, this project manager took the right steps to find an uncommon solution to a common problem. First, he admitted he had made a mistake, and then he took a step back to assess the situation (after his initial reaction and a few choice words).

With no obvious solution around, many people would have chosen to toss out the marker-stained board, but this project manager decided to use his mistake as an opportunity to try something new.

After all, what did he have to lose at this point, other than what appeared to be a destroyed whiteboard? A few scribbles with a dry-erase pen and a wipe later, the board was as good as new.

After that, he followed up with one of the most important steps in the process of discovery: He shared his new discovery with others.

Have you ever made a surprising discovery in the face of an accident or a mistake that seemed to have no possible solution? In what ways did you take a creative leap or try something new to make that discovery?