Russell L. Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking, categorizes mistakes into two categories: errors of commission and errors of omission. An error of commission means doing something that should not be done. Accidentally deleting a client from a database is an error of commission. An error of omission means not doing something that should be done. Not calling a potential client you were introduced to is an error of omission.

Most policies and guidelines in organizations are in place to avoid errors of commission. Organizations track errors of commission. Some might even have bonuses attached to avoiding them. We tend to be very focused on not doing the wrong thing.

However, the consequences are somewhat counterintuitive. If an organization is focused on avoiding errors of commission, the best thing for an individual to do is to do nothing. By doing nothing you won’t make errors of commission. And if you’re rewarded for not making them, if an issue comes up, it’s better to lay blame than take responsibility.

The two types of errors are also linked. We make errors of omission, because we fear errors of commission. We fear that by trying something new, we’ll break something existing. As a result, trying to avoid errors of commission will lead to more errors of omission.

We tend to focus on errors of commission, because they are easier to find and thus easier to track. However, fixing something that was incorrectly done is easier than catching an opportunity that was lost. Like Ackoff says: “The decline or demise of organizations is generally more likely to derive from errors of omission rather than errors of commission”.

We should focus more on avoiding errors of omission. And we do that by focusing less on avoiding errors of commission. So let’s grab them opportunities and worry less about making mistakes. And when someone does make a mistake, say “Thank you”.

If you liked this post, you might also want to read a short, yet popular post “Always successful? You need to try harder!”.