How To Make Mistakes

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Many years ago when I was in college at the University of Minnesota, I had a German language professor tell the class, “If you don’t know what you’re saying, say it loudly.” The point he was trying to impress on us was that if the person to whom you are speaking cannot hear your mistakes, they cannot correct them, and you will not learn.

I found this took a bit of courage because, as an adult, I was used to feeling that I could (usually) open my mouth and not sound stupid. It required adopting a mindset of courageously making mistakes. For six-months during my Junior year I attended college in a small town in Austria called Graz, from where I have a distinct memory of putting this practice to use.

Shortly after I arrived in Graz and started classes, we had a project that required drawing, for which I needed paper and colored pencils. This was pre-internet, so I began my quest for supplies by wandering  aimlessly around the city center near the university until I eventually found a stationary supply store. At this point, not knowing many German words, I was able to string together enough to say (in German), “I would like pencils with color.”

German has a word for everything! Unlike English where you can start with “pencil” and then add an adjective (“color”) to arrive at colored pencil, German has a single word for that object. I knew the word for pencil (Bleistift) and the word for color (Farbe), but I knew that I didn’t know what a colored pencil was in German.

The clerk gave me a blank look. “Bleistift mit Farben?” I imagine she was thinking. I searched my vocabulary a bit and realized I knew the word “inside”, so I said that I wanted a pencil with color inside. I made a hole with one hand, and pointed into it with the index finger on my other hand. In retrospect, that gesture may not have been helpful. The clerk bust out laughing, but eventually said, “Ohh…Buntstift!” Like I said….a word for everything.

I left the store with a package of Bunstifte, feeling very confident about my ability to learn German and enjoy my semester there. It was that incident that taught me the value of making mistakes loudly.


As users of Microsoft Dynamics GP, you have probably seen this type of error message:

Error1 Error2 Error3

My all-time favorite, of which I unfortunately could not find a sample, is a warning message that contains only “18”.

These messages are all generated by the Dynamics GP runtime when it detects something has gone wrong, but the actual source of the message is unknown. It could be core GP, a 3rd Party Product, or a customization. When I was a kid, the city bus had a cord you’d pull to indicate you wanted the driver to stop and let you off. This would ring a bell near the driver, and they’d stop at the next corner. The messages above are a bit like that—the bell goes off, but you don’t know who pulled the cord.

Over the past couple of years, WilloWare has been implementing an error reporting practice throughout all of our products and customizations. The intent is to create “loud” mistakes. Here is an example:


This message tells you what the error was, where it happened, the version of the software…and who caused it—WilloWare. It also provides a link to make it easy to report the error to us.

Our new error reporting practices allow us to very quickly identify and correct problems because the software tells us exactly where the problem occurred. It has eliminated the need to do screen sharing to watch what a user is doing, we don’t need screen captures or steps to reproduce the error, and we don’t need to run SQL Logs or Dex Logs to trace the issue.   Issue resolution, which could have previously taken many hours spread over several days, now requires just the time needed to change the code and create a new build of the software.

We can probably all do a better job making, and learning from, mistakes. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Do we know when we make mistakes?
  • What process do we have that makes it easy to spot and report mistakes?
  • Do we value learning from mistakes over appearance of perfection?
  • How do we respond when we learn we’ve made a mistake?

The answer, to “How to Make Mistakes”, is to make them loudly.

by WillowWare









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