Mistakes Matter Too: Why We Should Share Our Failures, Not Just Our Successes

Let’s judge people not just by their successes but by their best screwups too. Or at least that’s what I proposed a few years back to Google HR — that Googlers add “My Biggest Mistake” to their Google Resume (the Google Resume being an internal accomplishments CV that employees maintained primarily for purposes of promotion reviews. It has since largely been replaced by other evaluation templates).  Larry Page believes audacious goals are the only ones worth going after because even if you fail, you’ve likely made more of a difference than completing easier tasks. So why not call out those failures and their associated lessons? Here was my rationale:

Learning organizations embrace failure in addition to success. Negative examples are cited often in the culture of military and health care, where admitting mistakes kills a career and even opens you up to liability. While reading about this toxicity I became concerned that Google was suffering a bit from the “we’re all A Students” problem. Google Resumes were lovingly manicured and groomed to impress reviewers – everyone was so successful! Sure the occasional post-mortem was conducted if something really went wrong, but these were isolated to the team + their management, and rarely attached to an individual (other than those who in the cover of darkness received low performance reviews and were encourage to find another project). Yes, maybe some of the learnings were folded back into our company-wide processes and thus everyone benefits, but there was no way to browse this valuable information, or to ID the battle-scarred individuals for deeper introspection through 1:1 chat.
On top of this halcyon view of ourselves, we were actually filled with folks who had just crazy amazing backgrounds. Like, “See that dude, he invented Python.” Holy shit, that can be kind of intimidating when you start to think everyone around is a perfect supergenius. I find that even when you respect someone it’s humanizing to know that, yes, they screw up too sometimes. That’s why events such as FailCon have gotten a momentum in the tech community.
Also, Google was in a general hypergrowth period from a headcount perspective which means norms & defaults are very important as signals of what matters in a culture. Without those, you lose the fabric. Culture frays. So I did something strange: I added “Biggest Mistakes & Lessons Learned” section to my resume and outlined three times I f’ed up.
Then it started spreading – pinged a few folks I knew and asked them to add it. And they asked a few more. I suggested it on the company wide Ideas@ list. It wasn’t like it “went viral,” but if I recall correctly a few dozen folks made the addition to their Google Resume, which was cool. With this minor success in hand I began a campaign to make it an official part of the Google Resume template. You see, defaults matter. Think about the forms you fill out – those boxes make a difference. They signal to you what’s important. What’s expected of you. Norms > rules.
Unfortunately I kind of got the brush off and it was suggested that I just continue the grassroots effort. Now, this isn’t a knock on our HR team – we have one of the most progressive – and aggressive – people operations groups out there. I have been impressed with their analytic thinking and ability to get stuff done. I just think they were wrong on this one 🙂
Although Google has maintained a strong culture, I still believe there’s opportunity to help share our mistakes internally – and externally – in order to accelerate the cycles of innovation. Let’s not make the same error twice is a powerful goal. But actually now I’m thinking even larger than Google’s internal resumes. Hey LinkedIn, how about making “Mistakes” a default field on your Profiles? 
[related: Kudos to the entrepreneurs who write great postmortems on their companies. Tremendous balls to stand up and say “here’s what we/I could have done better” but you are contributing to the ecosystem in a big way]