One of our favorite talks is on making mistakes write. Not just right R-I-G-H-T but WRITE like W-R-I-T-E! When we started our business, we made so many mistakes, we got good at it. So, it seemed natural to us to develop a process for making mistakes.

Our business was successful, but it was built on the backs of mistakes. When we started our company our standard contracts were three pages long, but when we sold it 20 years later, our contracts were 37 pages long! That’s how many mistakes we made along the way.

And that’s not the half of it! Beyond contract clauses, our mistakes actually improved all of our company’s documentation. Why? Because we never wasted a perfectly good mistake!


Here’s our short list to making mistakes write:

1. Permission

Give yourself and all your people permission to make mistakes – as long as they make mistakes in a way that improves your company. Most new hires come from families, schools, associations, and former employers that frowned upon mistakes. They may have been punished, embarrassed, or worse, fired! Is it any wonder that they don’t want to admit a mistake has happened? Is it any wonder that they go for the quick fix, and just throw on a patch and say, “Yea, there was a problem, but it’s all straightened out now.” Change that attitude with a culture of permission. And sure, if they are just incompetent, they gotta go. But even the most competent people are scared to admit to a mistake.

2. Admission

Yes, admit that a mistake was made. Prevent exacerbation and cover-up. You are judged more favorably when you own up, apologize, make amends and present a plan to prevent a reoccurrence. We call this “Aim, don’t blame!” Blame is disempowering and makes you a victim. Take charge and aim at what you can do to prevent the mistake in the future. Basically, take responsibility and clean up your own backyard.

3. Cause

Behind every mistake there’s a miscommunication, a misconception, or a misrepresentation. Identifying those causes is the first step in making mistakes write. We all make assumptions about the other person’s behavior and when we are wrong, things go wrong. Someone smart once said “A-s-s-u-m-e: It makes an ASS out of U and ME!” When you can put your finger on the cause, you are on your way to improvement.

4. Documents

To prevent future mistakes in the areas affected, identify all the documents that need to be created, corrected, or improved.  Yes, that’s right, documents. Maybe it’s a clause in a contract. Maybe it’s a checklist, a signoff sheet, a job description, a policy, a procedure, a label, or maybe it’s a sign above a low hanging ledge that says, “DUCK!”

5. Write!

Write down the mistake, the cause, and the all revised documentation that needs to be incorporated in to your business environment. Be sure to involve others in the writing process. Get opinions and suggestions from folks in your company and from other companies and institutions. Then, develop new policies and procedures that make the mistake less likely to reoccur. Most mistakes can improve several documents at the same time.

6. Approve

It doesn’t do you any good to document new ways of doing things if they are lost in the effort and just filed away. No. You must distribute the new policy and get everyone involved to agree and sign off on it. Sometimes folks outside your company may be required to give their approval. This is a positive way to defuse faulting others and dissolve hard feelings. Creating a notebook where these sign-off sheets are kept is also a great onboard-training tool for new hires. They can quickly see the mistakes made in the past and how and why the new documentation and procedures exist to prevent them in the future.

7. Acknowledge

When someone on your staff makes a mistake, but makes that mistake “write,” give them public acknowledgement. Folks thrive on validation from a higher authority and the appreciation of their peers. You can do this with a simple memo circulated to the whole team, “Mary identified a ongoing problem with our procedures and improved them to prevent a reoccurrence.” Now three things happen. First, your people know who Mary is, what she does, and how she improved the company. Second, they know that they too will be celebrated when they permanently fix a problem. And third, Mary is encouraged to continue improving your company.

8. Repeat!

We had a senior exec who chided us for this policy, “You guys are trying to make everything idiot proof.” We quickly answered, “No we’re not. We’re just trying to make things idiot resistant!” To which he quipped, “That may be true, but even now, as we speak, they’re building a better idiot!” He was right! It’s a moving target out there. So we kept adding clauses until our contracts were 37 pages long!

You and your people are going to make mistakes. Why not make them write?


Who We Are

Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey Barefoot Wine Founders

Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey co-authored the New York Times bestselling business book, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. The book has been selected as recommended reading in the CEO Library for CEO Forum, the C-Suite Book Club, and numerous university classes on business and entrepreneurship. It chronicles their humble beginnings from the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse to the board room of E&J Gallo, who ultimately acquired their brand and engaged them as brand consultants. Barefoot is now the world’s largest wine brand.

Beginning with virtually no money and no wine industry experience, they employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles, create new markets and forge strategic alliances. They pioneered Worthy Cause Marketing and performance-based compensation. They built an internationally bestselling brand and received their industry’s “Hot Brand” award for several consecutive years.

They offer their Guiding Principles for Success (GPS) to help entrepreneurs become successful. Their book, The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways To Engage and Empower Your People, helps corporations maximize the value of their human resources.

Currently they travel the world leading workshops, trainings, & keynoting at business schools, corporations, conferences. They are regular media guests and contributors to international publications and professional journals. They are C-Suite Network Advisors & Contributing Editors. Visit their popular brand building site at

To make inquiries for keynote speaking, trainings or consulting, please contact