May 7, 2012

Mistakes Are Painfully Fantastic

Chi with one of her marketing creations.

Have you or someone on your team ever made a painful mistake?

You know, the kind of mistake that makes you cringe with embarrassment?  That makes you feel like you got punched in the stomach?

Those are the best.

Painful mistakes are always fantastic learning opportunities.  Never let one go to waste.  And never punish someone for making a mistake the first time.  Always focus on the learning.

A few years ago we had a new Marking Manager, Chi.  She was organizing her first event for VietnamWorks jobseekers.

Chi had invited newspapers and television stations to cover the event.  The main objective of the entire event was to attract free publicity through the media.

She was targeting attendance of about 500.  Her team rented a room at a local convention center.

Having had experience with events like this I knew that the flake factor would be high.  Many people would accept invitations but would not end up coming.  I wanted a full house for the television cameras.  Nothing looks worse than a cavernous room with a few scattered people.  It’s like hosting a party and no one comes.

“Chi,” I said.  “You should get confirmations from at least 1,500 people in order to fill those seats.  If the seats fill up, we can add more chairs or people can stand in the aisles.  That would look great.”

“No need,” she said.  “700 confirmations should do it.”  She seemed very confident.

I didn’t share her optimism.  Before the event I asked her again to increase the number of invitees.

She replied “We’re fine.  We have plenty of confirmations.”

My gut told me a mistake was brewing.  But I also knew if I forced Chi to invite more people she would resent my interference with her responsibilities.  And even if I was right, if I forced her she wouldn’t learn to do it right the next time.  So I bit my tongue.

On the day of the event I walked in a few minutes before start time.  There were about 50 people in the room.  I swear I heard crickets.

Chi rushed to meet me at the door.  The look of pain and embarrassment on her face said it all.

“Anh Chris, don’t say it!  I know, I know!!”

“Ok Chi.  This looks terrible.”  She looked at the floor.

Later that day we met to discuss the event.  “What did you learn?” I asked.

“Always always always invite far more people than you want to attend,” she answered.  And she did.

From that day forward every event Chi organized at VietnamWorks had standing room only.  She even figured out a clever way to make people work to “earn” an invitation so they would value it more and be more likely to attend.  Tickets to our events became sought-after commodities.  The press coverage was great.

Chi’s pain and learning from her first event mistake was the key to her event excellence in the years thereafter.

Mistakes are painfully fantastic.