Allowing mistakes as a basis for creativity? Please don’t!

I felt very honored and pleased when I was asked if I might like to write a guest article for 2changeculture on the topic „Allowing mistakes as a basis for creativity“. I was in a good mood at the time, wanted to write and the time until April seemed to last forever. But then it came as it had to come: A mixture of procrastination and surprises, which happen in our dynamic and complex world, led to a tight time. I could have seen it coming. Sure, afterwards you’re always smarter. So was it a mistake to have accepted this guest contribution? Perhaps – and at the same time perhaps a somewhat different example for the topic: Because if I had not taken the liberty of making this „mistake“, I would not have accepted the guest contribution at that time, had I not had the pressure today to write these lines and would not have become creative…


I’m not an expert on creativity. But I have picked up one or the other and in connection with my very own experience I have an opinion on it: First of all, I am convinced that everyone is creative. People can be creative in quite different ways: as artists, as footballers, as inventors, as politicians… And I am convinced that creativity can both be promoted and suppressed. These are highly complex interrelationships, so that cause and effect cannot be predicted in advance. Some people let their creativity wither away in the traditional school system oriented towards memorization and grading – others may discover their creativity in the rebellion against this system.

Allowing mistakes?

So should mistakes be allowed as a basis for creativity? That sounds logical at first: If mistakes are punished, nobody will try „creative solutions“. Or vice versa: If mistakes are allowed, then I can try everything without having to reckon with a penalty. So I can let my creativity run wild.

But is that what we want? I’m not a friend of self-interest. Creativity in itself is not an end in itself, nor are mistakes. It depends: If I want to travel by train from A to B, I have no interest in the train driver finding new creative ways or in the maintenance work being carried out in a particularly creative way. On the contrary: I want security, I don’t want mistakes. This is the case in situations where the challenges are as simple or complicated as possible.

It looks a little different when the proportion of dynamics and complexity increases: If I want to take a taxi from B to C, I do expect the taxi driver to find creative solutions to avoid a sudden traffic jam, for example. I also accept that the creative solution will fail, so we may end up in a second traffic jam.

Mistake versus misconception

 I am unsure whether I had first read or heard the distinction between mistake and misconception from Lars Vollmer, Niels Pfläging or someone else, but I find it very useful. To put it simply: mistakes are simple or complicated activities that are carried out incorrectly, so you can clearly describe in advance how to achieve the desired result. Misconception can therefore be avoided and thus also to be avoided! In dynamic/complex situations, in which you cannot describe in advance what exactly will happen if you do this or that, you proceed differently: First, assumptions and hypotheses are made and it is then checked whether the desired result has been achieved. If not, it is a mistake and one can learn from it by correcting the assumptions, hypotheses, one’s own actions or the desired results. Misconceptions cannot be avoided, on the contrary: Misconceptions are necessary in order to gain new insights in highly dynamic and complex situations, so they serve learning.


Innovation is the goal

In my view, it should therefore read „allow misconceptions as a basis for creativity“.

This would make a lot clearer: creativity makes sense and is important exactly when „new territory“ is entered, when pioneering work is done, when new challenges are tackled for which it is not (yet) possible to predict what will happen. In such cases it is unavoidable that creative solutions do not (immediately) lead to the desired result – but that is then no avoidable mistake but an error.

I’m not entirely satisfied yet. Is permission to be mistaken really a basis for creativity? I’m not sure that’s the crux of the matter. I have already stated that creativity is not an end in itself in my view – in fact creativity is a means to an end, i.e. a way to come to new approaches under high dynamics/complexity. And when innovative approaches are successful, i.e. lead to the desired result, one usually speaks of „innovation“. Shouldn’t it be „mistakes as a basis for innovation“?

Incidentally, in my view, this is the core of Lean Startup: an iterative, empirical approach to systematically produce successful innovations under uncertainty/dynamics/complexity. Setting up a model (forming hypotheses), deriving and conducting experiments for validation, measuring results, deriving findings, adapting the model,… etc. etc.

Creativity comes into being

Anyway – I would like to get rid of some thoughts about creativity to close the circle. As already mentioned above: Creativity is a highly complex and not always clear topic. Freedom can foster creativity: If I have no fear of punishment, if I make a „mistake“ (or make a „misconception“), I will probably become more courageous and have more creative solutions in mind. However, restriction is also a catalyst for creativity: without the limitation of the number of characters in an SMS (and later on Twitter) many abbreviations and emojis would probably not have been created in this way. In many sports, the fastest and strongest would simply win if there were no rules of the game that would open up creative solution spaces in the first place. And the more complicated the state tax system and, at the same time, the more complex the international possibilities, the more creative the solutions of tax and investment advisors.


In my view, therefore, it is not a question of allowing mistakes/misconceptions across the board in order to enable creativity for the sake of creativity – rather, it should be a matter of designing the appropriate framework conditions intelligently in order to enable innovations where they create benefits and avoid mistakes where they cause too much damage.

Heiko Bartlog

Hosts for innovation

Published by

Chris Decker

Triathlon Coach der 2-fachen Ironman Siegerin Astrid Stienen. Lässt mit Leidenschaft Triathlon-Träume wahr werden.

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