A Good Mistake


I know a guy whose career changed directions because a data analyst made a small mistake. That mistake led to a conclusion that turned out to be partially false. Nevertheless, the conclusion resulted in a research project that eventually involved this guy, whom we’ll call Pete. Pete, from another part of the company, joined this research team and began his work. He and several other talented professionals further analyzed the problem and, eventually, Pete discovered the mistake. Along the way, the team had produced other very good work unrelated to the mistake. So the mistake, once revealed, was corrected but the team continued on and created a model for quality analysis and improvement still in use years later. But that’s not the end of the story.

Pete’s good work was noticed by several members of that cross-functional research team and he was invited to work on a project in another part of the company. This helped expand Pete’s professional network, which then facilitated a significant career shift. What’s interesting is that that career shift enabled Pete to strategically leverage his professional talents and personal make-up in a way he hadn’t been able to do in almost a decade. All because of a mistake.

Career paths are often not linear. Especially in the 21st century, people take zig-zag paths through multiple departments and companies, honing strengths and developing skills along the way. If it is done strategically, it can be a very effective method of career development. The most effective leaders help their employees on the zig or the zag that they happen to be on at the moment.

There’s a clever name for this career development process: Planned Happenstance.

The idea came from the mind of John Krumboltz and includes a few key propositions:

  1. Career counseling is about achieving a more satisfying career and personal life.
  2. Assessments should spur learning, not serve as a career “match-making” tool.
  3. Beneficial unplanned events result from engaging in exploratory actions.
  4. The value of career counseling is measured in what is accomplished in the real world.

If you look carefully at each proposition you’ll see that they are counter to much of what happens in career development today. In most organizations:

  1. Career counseling is about developing talent to fill key positions in the company.
  2. Assessments are used to match people to jobs.
  3. Planned career paths limit experiences and breadth.
  4. The value of career counseling is measured in the company’s bottom line.

In Pete’s case, he worked for a company that was somewhere between the two extremes described above. Here is the approach he took:

  1. While his boss was supportive in spirit, it was ultimately up to Pete to pursue work that was professionally and personally satisfying.
  2. Pete’s company offered no form of assessment, but he pursued these on his own, paying for them and the coaching out of his own pocket.
  3. The story at the top of this article is a series of beneficial unplanned events, which Pete knew how to leverage because of the coaching and mentoring he pursued.
  4. Today Pete is having a significant impact as a leader in his primary job, as well as in other strategic avocational efforts.

Because of his own career development experiences, Pete tries to be a leader that supports his employees with effective career development. He realizes that, especially, unplanned experiences have the potential for great benefit. He encourages his team members to take on interesting challenges, attend events peripherally related to job responsibilities, read books on disparate topics, engage people in and outside the company from different professions, and more.

All of these activities enrich people’s lives and open the door to very unusual shifts in career direction—even those based on mistakes.

What is your approach to personal and professional development of your team members? Is the primary focus on company results or on building people?

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Nuno Silva. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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