Never Walk Past a Mistake

By Jack Rosenberger

“Never walk past a mistake” is one of the first lessons taught to young leaders in the U.S. military, according to retired U.S. General and Secretary of State Colin Powell in his memoir, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. Like a gifted teacher, Powell, with an able assist from coauthor Tony Koltz, reinforces the message of “Never walk past a mistake” by succinctly describing it a second way: “Make on-the-spot corrections.”

Powell expounds on the advantages of “Never walk past a mistake” by describing its five purposes. They are, in his words:

1. Correcting a mistake shows attention to detail and reinforces standards within an organization

2. It teaches aspiring leaders to have the moral courage to speak out when standards are not being met

3. It shows the followers that you care about them, the unit, and its mission

4. You set the example for all of your subordinate leaders to act in the same manner

5. It keeps mistakes and screw-ups from moving to another level or, even worse, propagating

At its essence, “Never walk past a mistake” says the small things in both business and warfare, whether it’s the fine print in a new clause of a vendor’s contract or the coordinates of an area bombardment, are important and that, yes, every little detail matters.

The issue of how to deliver an on-the-spot correction, especially when it involves one or more coworkers, can be a delicate matter. “I have found that corrections done in a firm and fair manner with an explanation are appreciated,” suggests Powell. “Always try to turn the encounter into a mutually positive learning experience.”

If rules of thumb can meet, marry and produce offspring, then a close cousin of “Never walk past a mistake” is the newly minted Two-Minute Rule.

The Two-Minute Rule

The U.S. military’s “Never walk past a mistake” is about making immediate corrections. James Clear’s Two-Minute Rule, which is adapted from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, has two parts, the first of which is: “If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.”

Repeat after me: If a task can be completed under two minutes, tackle it immediately.

The purpose of the Two-Minute Rule is to stop procrastination and create new habits. (The rule’s second part is “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” The goal being, Clear says, to overcome “the inertia of life.”) The genesis of the Two-Minute Rule might be the world of crime, which, novelist Robert Crais notes, has the rule of thumb that two minutes is “as long as you can hope for at a robbery before the cops show up.”

What I like about the “If it takes less than two minutes, do it now” aspect of the Two-Minute Rule is that it inspires you to attack small, quickly achievable problems as you encounter them, or you can operate in batch mode and create a period of time in your daily schedule in which you tackle a series of two-minute tasks, such as the administrative chores that, while not a top priority, are necessary.

Making an on-the-spot correction, whether it takes two minutes or less, is always a superb idea. Mistakes don’t simply disappear. Instead, they tend to reappear and reappear—and they often just get worse. Whether human made or not, a mistake must be dealt with, so the next time a mistake reveals itself, take the necessary steps to eliminate it immediately.

About the Author

Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight. You can follow him on Twitter via @CIOInsight. To read his previous CIO Insight blog post, “What Does Bezos’s Law Mean for Your Data Center?”, click here.

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.

Latest Articles