How I’m Trying to Idiot-Proof Myself

7 May 2020 | 29 Comments

Sometimes I make really dumb mistakes.

If you’ve followed Stonemaier Games for years, you know what I’m talking about. There was the time I accidentally spoiled our own product by posting a thumbnail of the box that I thought people wouldn’t be able to read. I once put a bar code on a product that I’d already used on another product. Last year I approved neoprene mats for Wingspan without realizing the sample was 5% smaller than it should have been.

There are other mistakes too, many of which didn’t originate with me, but they’re ultimately my responsibility. Proofreading errors, rule discrepancies, balance issues, production shortfalls, etc. These are mistakes that directly impede our mission of bringing joy to tabletops worldwide.

I try to learn from every mistake I make. I’ve added more proofreaders and extended the timing of proofreading. I’ve added another set of eyes to every sample we receive. We work with a data analyst to look at playtest data for issues I can’t see. I have a focus group of retailers and distributors to help me gauge demand for new products before production begins. There are various people who review my work at various stages of every project. And so on.

Yet I have continued to make mistakes, and I will continue to do so. My most recent embarrassment was that the My Little Scythe expansion, Pie in the Sky, was printed without player tokens for the 2 new factions. Why? I never told our manufacturer to make them. They weren’t in the rules, and no one (the designer, proofreaders, graphic designer, localization partners, and manufacturer)–but most importantly, me–never noticed. The result was that we had to delay the release by several months while we frantically made those components.

So recently I decided to try something a little different. Something I’ve never had a boss, supervisor, or manager say to me. I understand why, as it isn’t exactly the type of thing that inspires confidence in my leadership.

Basically, I gave permission to Joe (the one other full-time employee at Stonemaier Games) to assume that everything I do has a mistake in it. In my exact words, I wrote to him, “Moving forward for all products, you view every detail of every product under the assumption that I’ve missed something. I’m asking for such broad coverage because there’s no other way some of these mistakes can be detected, and I don’t trust myself to not make them.”

This wasn’t me telling Joe to review my work–he already does that. This was me asking Joe to assume that everything I do is a mistake in the hopes of catching those mistakes before it’s too late.

It wasn’t easy at all for me to request that of Joe. In fact, I resisted even looking back at that email while writing this post. As open as I try to be about my mistakes on this blog, expressing my overall inadequacy to an employee was extremely difficult. Despite the burden that put on Joe, he seemed to take it in stride.

I’m not sure if this is something that other managers, bosses, and leaders already do or should do. Yes, there are terrible leaders who truly believe they’re infallible. There’s no helping them. I think there are plenty of other leaders who make it clear that just because they’re in charge doesn’t mean they’re right. Is that enough? Or is it beneficial to take a step further and tell employees, “Always assume that I’m wrong”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and examples. Have you ever had a boss say something like this? Or an authority figure who could have benefited themselves and the company by enabling employees to seek, identify, and highlight their shortcomings?

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29 Comments on “How I’m Trying to Idiot-Proof Myself

  1. It was shortly after the Tuscany expansion that I stumbled upon what remains my favorite game. Then I realized that the game was not even as good as the brand. That brand stood for positivity and excellence.

    You set your own bar at 180% and now when it’s merely 150% you want me to consider this a mistake? ‘Nay Nay’ as the late comedian Jon Pinette would say. Lack of perfection is not a mistake. Overall, what you do and the level you do it is outstanding.

    These non perfect scenarios are what makes the game of life(or board game play) fun!

    If every time I sat down to play a game, I played it flawlessly, I’d be bored and never play it again. What you have are fun challenges. Joe should not assume you made a mistake… he’s playing a coop game in which the pair of you excitedly try to hit a new high score.

    Don’t forget to LOVE the replay challenge of publishing the next game better than before.

    This is just stuff I’ve learned from you.

  2. Jamey, I’m very early on in my game designer dream, and I recently stumbled upon your content on YouTube.

    As I digest your videos, and now your blog posts, I am continually impressed. In this post, for example, you show your willingness to be humble. That is is so important in any field.

    I’m not certain yet which route I’ll go doit publishing, but it is encouraging to know that there are companies and individuals like you in this industry.

  3. Way back in my early job days, I worked at a computer store named Babbage’s. The manager had me help receive a shipment and we were to go through and compare each item to the inventory list. I asked him why we just didn’t assume the inventory was correct and he told me that corporate would purposely make mistakes on our count sheets in order to make sure that we are doing inventory correctly. This kind of strikes me as similar to what you are doing. Assume there are mistakes; have someone else check them. If you want to keep the other guy on his toes, make a mistake on purpose on occasion to see if he picks up on it.

  4. Brilliant!! There’s nothing I hate more than asking my partner to look over what I’ve done & he just assumes I did it right and approves it, only to point out a mistake to me the second it’s too late to fix it!! After staring at something for hours upon hours, it’s easy to overlook stuff. Having someone take an extremely close look at it for you is always wise.

  5. As officers, we know the value of our intelligent, dedicated enlisted force. Thus, when I was put in charge of a all-Service component (I’m Air Force, and on my team included a member from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard), it was incumbent upon me to rely on them and they needed to know that I had their back and I needed their ideas.

    During a Tuesday meeting, I had been directed to create a process for the 750 personnel appraisals which would be conducted following the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony. We sat down as a group and worked on the process flow and who would hande what aspects of the process. One niggling point was how to track the documents and ensure that the folders with the information wouldn’t be lost in the sea of paperwork slowly dominating all the desks across the command offices.

    I needed ideas and I told them that just because I’m wearing the bars (the rank of a Captain) the best ideas weren’t going to come from me as they performed the day-to-day work. Enter into the youngest team member, a 22 y.o. from the Coast Guard (“Coastie”) who made the recommendation to use the several reams of bright fuschia paper which she had found in the closet. We discussed the idea and in the end implemented it, attaching all of the relevant data on the fuschia paper and distributed to the various command centers. Leadership lauded the idea as they imply couldn’t misplace it on their desks and in the end, I wrote the young Coastie up for a an Achievement Medal for her clever idea which ensured no degradation to the mission. Just because you’re the one in charger, true leadership means that you look to every member of the team for ideas.

  6. I’ve always told the people I train, and the techs who’s work I review and questions I answer that there’s always the possibility I’m wrong. I tell my daughter the same thing. Check the answers you’re given, check the work. Don’t ever assume you’re right.

    It’s just good sense.

    I tell my team that I know I don’t know everything, and I know that what I “know” is only because I haven’t found it to be wrong yet. I like finding places where I messed up, or didn’t know something.

    You don’t learn, or get better by doing the right thing. You learn and get better by doing the wrong thing.

    Look at mistakes, stupidity, whatever you want to call it as a chance to grow, not fail.

  7. Thank you for the article. This inspired me to share this message with my team:

    Double-checking the work of our fellow team members should not be viewed as a lack of trust in that team member. This includes me. We should all assume we are not infallible and we should welcome a second set of eyes to either verify we performed admirably in this instance or, more often, get valuable additional perspective from our fellows on how we can correct an error we made or enhance the final version of something. This constant vigilance, assuming we’re flawed, should not be interpreted as a supposition of our untrustworthiness, but a true admission that we are better with the help of others. This helps us all be our best.

  8. What you are describing sounds a lot like the empowerment that was given to the line workers under the tutelage of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. His ideas and business practice concepts revolutionized a lot of the manufacturing industry. He presented and taught these concepts in the 1950s in Japan as they were rebuilding after WWII, and they have remained the gold standard sense. Sure, people have added new buzzwords and repackaged these ideas as “new” every few years under names like “Total Quality Leadership” and “Lean Electronics” and others. But at the core, this is Deming’s work.

    You ask someone to assume you have made a mistake; that they are tasked with finding that mistake and helping to correct it. This admission of being “less than perfect” is a tough one (especially for a manager in the 1950s!). But Deming introduced such ideas as the authority of anyone in a factory to instantly shut down all of production if they saw an issue that they felt needed to be corrected. Pull a rope, and the whole factory stops until the managers, the technical people, and that one lowly assembly worker have all — together — agreed that the issue is fixed and things can proceed. It is a lot of trust to place in near the bottom of the totem pole; and a lot of authority to cede from the top of it.

    But this is how a good (modern) manager does things. They recognize that they do not — cannot — see everything, nor should they be expected to. They grant the authority to others in their employ to safely and confidently be able to report that “this is wrong and we need to fix it.” They grant ownership over the processes and (to a certain extent) the final product. That ownership and authority result in better communications within the company, and a better product for the consumer.

    This is just my long-winded way of saying “good on you!” This entry, along with a thousand other things you have said and done, solidifies my view of you and this company as a truly outstanding organization and amazingly good people. Thanks!

    1. Thanks David! I appreciate the way you put this, particularly how Deming tasked people to actively find and help correct mistakes in an ongoing manner (instead of on a case-by-case basis or simply asking for feedback from time to time). That’s exactly what I was trying to do when I reached out to Joe recently.

  9. As I’m sure you already know, mistakes are part of the business. In my opinion, growing your businness is going to lead to much more mistakes (and much bigger ones).

    The ultimate truth is that you recognize a good leader and a good company not by them making no mistakes, but by how they react and fix those mistakes when they happen.

    Huge screw ups and F ups are part of the every day life of any company, big or small. OF COURSE, you’d want to minimize those mistakes taking the measures that you took, but having mechanisms in order to deal with the mistakes when they happen without breaking a sweat is equally important.

  10. As a Transmission System Operator I viewed everything from the perspective that it had a mistake and I was searching for that mistake in mine, and other’s work. My colleagues were trained, and took pride, in having the same attitude as well. The strange thing was, if a mistake was found we corrected it with no fault being blamed on the person who committed it – we were all in it together as a team, and would not let the team fail. So, swallow your pride and stop being responsible as an individual and start working with your other team member to be responsible as a team !

  11. Thats interesting that you felt uncomfortable asking an employee to review your work. You would review their work, right? And you would not expect them to be offended by that or to feel inferior just because you want to keep mistakes from getting out the door. Everyone makes mistakes but maybe the game design business is not a place where it’s expected. I work in software engineering and I have never heard of a software company that didn’t expect to have bugs in their software and/or didn’t have a QA department to look for those bugs. Had you advanced through the years doing what I do, the idea of asking for someone to test your work would not have felt awkward, foreign, or a hit to the ego. It’s perfectly normal to plan for and try to catch mistakes.

    I’m glad to hear you are actively working to improve things to keep mistakes from happening. That makes your company and products even more impressive to me. My guess before now would have been that you already paid a lot of attention to the details and this shows you did and continue to do so even more than before.

    1. David: Oh, that’s not uncomfortable at all–Joe reviews my work all the time, as do many people. This is different, as described in the post. This was an open admission of inadequacy, idiocy, and weakness.

      1. Openly admitting that you will make mistakes is not “an open admission of inadequacy, idiocy, and weakness”. It is an open admission of being human. There is a reason why pencils have erasers.

  12. Seems like the most effective leaders quickly identify their weaknesses and either put something in place to correct, or hire it. Either way it’s time and money well spent. Lessons learned the hard way on my part as well. I do really well at running the business D2D, marketing to clients and potential employees; but not everything. Appropriate delegation, including having someone double-check your work is crucial. It can also engender a sense of empowerment in the individual trusting them with something so important. The key is to delegate to someone who (1) likes to do the detailed work and (2) is good at it. Thanks Jamey, good stuff.

  13. I’ve suffered my whole life with ADHD so I can totally relate to your story, I’d suggest you to read the “Extreme Ownership” book from Jocko Willink, it drastically changed the way I see myself as a leader.

  14. This one hits home. The only saving grace I have is that I had help in making the mistake but I did the same bar code on 2 different products mistake and a proofreading mistake on a card called “Shields” in the Star Trek DBG. Everyone will say how can you be so stupid to make that mistake? Well, the spreadsheet I was given to use had the barcode cell in 2 different places (I didn’t know that) so I only changed the one cell that was visible and not the cell that was way down at the bottom of the spreadsheet that you couldn’t see unless you scrolled all the way down. And, of course they used that one instead of the one that is visible right at the top of the spreadsheet. The barcode was added after the digital proof we approved and the wrong barcode was placed on the box.
    Shields was misspelled on the spreadsheet as “Sheilds”, I missed it but we caught it on the graphic file, it was corrected, I saw it corrected and approved the card image. Bandai also didn’t do physical proofs (why? I don’t really know) but only digital proofs. The digital proof was all the 100 cards on a single sheet so we were more checking that we had the right number of cards and they had the correct card backs. Unfortunately a mistake was made and they uploaded the old “Sheilds” card instead of the corrected one. We never noticed it on the computer screen.
    And that is how you are so stupid to make that kind of mistake.
    Thanks Jamey, for sharing your mistakes. It makes me feel better.

  15. Thank you for your courage to be accountable to both your employees and to us, and especially blogging about it. This is great leadership.

    I am blessed to have a supervisor and other team members who are the same – open to suggestions of where to improve our processes, service and to grow personally. This culture has led to us becoming better people as well as a recognised high-performing team, where ‘silly’ questions can lead to vigorous discussions that lead to massive improvements. We all feel valued and strive constantly to benefit the whole team.

    Well done. You, your team and your customers will all benefit from this approach.

  16. Never had a boss say that, nor thought to say that to a subordinate. I certainly try to cultivate an environment of being able to ask questions and be ok with being challenged. For me, these types of events are greater indicators of sharpening up the processes. I’d be looking at what is the review and transition process, as well as the checklist(s) involved. I’d put a part in there about a “what did I miss” review before handing off, or a master component list with all the possible components that need to be checked on or off, or even a sub-check that would prompt if the base game had player tokens to follow up with a Yes/No if the expansion needs them also, so it’s at least noted somewhere. Love the idea to keep the dialogue and focus on a higher level of scrutiny, as it should lead to better quality overall and for me, I’d layer in some support mechanisms so it’s not as much “I remembered to double check the work” as much as checking it as part of the process. (Little soap-boxy, I just got done reading The Checklist Manifesto)

    1. Thanks Shane! I’m glad you shared some of these best practices. I have a long, long checklist I use for projects, though it’s sometimes the most obvious things that I don’t think to add to the list (until I do). :)

  17. This is similar to what we practice in the aviation world called crew resource management (CRM). Since mistakes when you’re flying can be fatal, all members of a flight crew are empowered to question decisions and bring up possible mistakes. The aircraft commander is not supposed to have an ego and understand that when mistakes are brought up its for everyone’s benefit and not get their feelings hurt.

  18. As an instructional designer, I have almost this exactly policy for when a course I develop goes through any of our quality assurance processes. Whether that’s my first review, an internal QA process on our team, or the final sign-off of the Subject Matter Expert I’m developing the course with.

    The courses are to detailed for me to assume that I’ve caught everything, or that I’ve done everything correctly. I’m human, there’s absolutely no way I’ll stop making mistakes, particularly as I branch out into new methods and types of designing. I’ve found that it’s helped my working relationships with these individuals–they trust that they can bring issues to me, and that I’ll act on them, rather than items getting ignored.

    It also helps because they’ve started to even point out things that while may not necessarily be *wrong,* they could be better. It’s a matter of getting everyone, at every point in the process to have an eye for detail, polish, and quality. Even if I don’t use all the feedback, I’d rather spend an extra 5-10 minutes reading it, than not have it and ship a sub-par product.

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