This post – or at least the idea behind it – is a perennial favorite of mine. The repeatedly observable behavior where, after someone on the team has stuck their foot in it, then (and seemingly only then) do folks start to tell war stories about making the exact same mistake.
Why? Why not tell those cautionary tales ahead of time?
Maybe because we think nobody would listen until they’ve experienced the pain themselves. Maybe because we think we’re the only one dumb enough to do it, and hide the story out of shame.
I honestly don’t know. But it remains extremely true for me.
One summer I was hired to help build scenery for a local summer stock theater venue. The problem is that I had been trained as an electrician, so every task in the wood shop required that I learn new skills on-the-fly. Because this was a job not a class and I was expected to know what I was doing, I didn’t ask enough questions and ended up making about twice as many mistakes as necessary on everything. Most of those mistakes weren’t life-threatening.
But one of the times, I was working on the table saw had my first experience with kick-back (for a video of what this looks like, see here. No, that’s not me.).
Similar to the video linked above, I was lucky that nobody was hurt, but then something weird happened – everyone started showing off their scars.
Guys who hadn’t even been in the wood shop when my accident happened came down from ladders, up from trenches, and over from across the park to show me scars that decorated their arms, fingers, hands, legs, and torsos. Each one came with a story, and the stories were remarkably similar:
“I was doing this thing… I was standing in the wrong place… I stopped paying attention for a second… and BOOM!”
This story was followed by “And that’s why from then on I always make sure I <fill in the name of the safety procedure>”.
In addition to being thankful that no one was harmed, I was grateful for them not making me feel like I was a complete numskull for letting this happen. Apparently it can (and does) happen to everyone.
But I also wondered why nobody thought to tell those stories on the FIRST day. Like I said earlier, this wasn’t a teaching environment but I could imagine some sort of first-day ritual – the showing of the scars – where everyone lists their experiences (in effect, showing their scars) and sharing the life lessons they learned from them.
Because not EVERYONE has had EVERY mishap, but in a team of 5 or more professionals, collectively the group has seen a lot.
At the time I thought that if every scene shop adopted a custom like that, more people would learn better lessons and have fewer scars (not to mention more severe injuries) to show for it.
I was reminded of this episode in my life the other day, when someone tweeted about reconfiguring a remote network device, only to find they had messed up one of the commands and the entire site was no longer accessible. A 2 hour drive was required to get on-site and fix the issue.
Immediately after the tweet came an outpouring of advice:
“Cisco’s ‘reload in’ command is your best friend.”;
“Always test your config in GNS3 first”;
“Never update a config until another set of eyes has looked at it first”
…and so on…
It reminded me of everyone coming down to the scene shop to show me their scars.
The next time you are sitting with your colleagues at the office – maybe you have a new face on the team; or maybe it’s YOUR first day; or maybe you’re starting a new project. Think about ways you can initiate a “showing of the scars”. Go around the table and list out your worst mistakes and the lessons you learned from them.
I’m willing to bet that you will grow closer as a team; that fewer “rookie” mistakes will be made by everyone; and that even the most grizzled veterans will probably learn a few things they didn’t know (or possibly had forgotten).
More people learning better lessons with fewer scars to show for it.