CEO Shoptalk — Mistake Amnesia

One of the first things I do when I take on a new CEO client is to ask, “What percentage of your decisions are good?”

I get two answers: forty-five percent or ninety percent. [True.]

I ask the same question of the same CEOs some time after we’ve been working together.

I get two answers:

 1. The former 90%-ers now say, “Forty-five percent.”

 2. The former 45%-ers now say, “About the same, maybe 50%, but now I know why.”

In making decisions, CEOs are going to make a lot of bad ones. If you follow the math above, more bad decisions than good decisions.

How do you get rid of the overhang of bad decisions? Mistake Amnesia!

It is not quite that simple as there are bad decisions that fall into differing levels of “bad.”

 1. Some are “awkward” and the enterprise will survive just fine. You will blush and move on. Maybe someone will josh you at a company meeting.

  2. Some are of such portent that they must be corrected. This may require additional work just to get back to the “before” status.

 3. Some are “burn the house down” bad such that they entail real damage, up to and including the replacement of the CEO. [Note bad decision as it relates to how to tie down the airplane. Ooops.]

If you survive a truly horrendous decision, you often brood over it. That is not a good use of your time as it cannot be undone and you are investing energy — energy you may not have — with no change in the outcome.

Remember our discussion of “energy sources” and “energy sinks”? This is an energy sink.

The Energy Source v The Energy Sink Theory of Life

Still, you feel compelled to do something. Here is what you do — you create MISTAKE AMNESIA.

To create mistake amnesia, you have to do the following:

 1. Admit the mistake to yourself. Take no more than fifteen minutes and work through the details. No more than fifteen minutes.

This is like conducting a project postmortem. Recall that?

Capitalizing Upon Success

 2. Write on a single index card what the decision was and the outcome. No more than a single index card.

 3. Get a distinctive box. Here is the Pig Box in which I used to store my index cards.

 4. Now, you have your mistake turned into a single index card and stored in your Pig Box or equivalent.

 5. Now, forget about it for two weeks. Every time you are tempted to remember it say, “I don’t need to remember it, it’s in the Pig Box.”

Do not think about it, do not brood.

 6. Every so often when the temptation is overbearing, read all the mistakes you made on their index cards in the Pig Box.

 7. Every so often — mandatory — take half of the mistakes and burn their card in your fireplace. You can also burn them holding one corner. I burn mine in this fireplace.

[Please note the black Lab who has nothing to do with Mistake Amnesia. He’s looking for a hand out.]

 8. Every time the temptation comes up, say, “No, sir. That mistake has been committed to the ether by the process of Mistake Amnesia.”

Then, stop thinking about it and look forward to getting rid of the rest of them.

On the other hand, you can just skip the ritual and stop brooding on them. Never really worked for me, hence the Pig Box.

And, that, dear reader, is how you create Mistake Amnesia. Remember, you can survive anything if you forgive yourself and stop beating yourself up. Be kind to yourself.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Big week coming up. Make good decisions. Pig Box the bad ones. How long is it until football season?