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Mess Up, Screw Up, or Fudge Up

Major Eric Kowalski

Major Eric Kowalski

RAF Croughton, England --

Something that I have heard often since I’ve been in the Air Force – and realize I repeat every time I meet a new Defender in the squadron – is that mistakes aren’t punished but crimes are.  Failures are the best way to learn the right way to do things, but speaking from  a career field that has been accused of “eating its own,” sometimes the distinction is lost (especially if you’re receiving paperwork).  How can an individual fail in a “no fail” mission while still learning and moving forward?

Rather than try to figure this out on my own, I did what I’ve been raised to do – ask a SNCO.  Thankfully, there was an answer from one of my SMSgts who summed it up as, “You succeed, mess up, screw up, or fudge up,” (to paraphrase A Christmas Story, he didn’t say “fudge”).  I propose that we change the way we look at failures, and use this framework – “Mess Up, Screw Up, and Fudge Up” – to judge how bad a failure really is.

Mess Up: To make an error due to the lack of training, knowledge, or experience; “Those guys really messed up when they created that ‘E4Mafia4Life’ Microsoft Office Group. They didn’t realize that everyone on the Global could see it.”

Screw Up: To decide to act on training, knowledge, or experience expecting one outcome but getting an entirely different and undesired outcome; “You really screwed up when you thought you could make that turn on the village road with the F-350.”   

Fudge Up: To know what you believe the right thing to do is and explicitly not doing it, expecting an outcome that ends favorably for you (but does not); “Where’s SSgt Smith?” “The flight chief is counseling him because he was late and looked like garbage.  He was out all night and thought he could come straight to work.” “Wow, he really fudged up.”

In all three categories, failure has occurred and generally at least some rule was violated.  In a “black and white discipline” world, you could probably treat all failures in each category the same but you may do so at the risk of burning out your people (or yourself) and hindering self-development.  Although some failures may raise more alarms than others, every situation has to be looked at individually.  

To “Mess Up” is to make that rookie mistake, and is often the easiest to correct.  A “root cause analysis” is usually quick, and feedback is almost immediate.  The important thing here to note that a “Mess Up” is typically something that is done in complete ignorance, not willfully.  The outcome may still be severe but when evaluating corrective actions it’s easy to separate the mistake from individual performance.  There’s no rank or age limit on this – any one of us can mess up – but what’s important is recognizing what you’ve done was wrong and moving on.

To “Fudge Up” is typically committing a criminal act, or to flagrantly disobey directions from others.  The standard example would be getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while impaired.  You know that driving under the influence is not only illegal but may result in the death of yourself or others, but also you decide that either you probably won’t be caught or you are “OK to drive.”  In both cases, you’ve evaluated the situation, made a decision (“I’m going to get behind the wheel”), and you’re caught and arrested.  On a more common basis this may be cutting corners at work when there are regulations/guidance that explicitly state what you shall/must/will do.   Unlike “Messing Up”, when you “Fudge Up” you know what the consequences could be because of your action but you decide to do it anyway.  “Fudging Up” still offers the offender an opportunity to learn and move on but will probably need some disciplinary action to prevent future offenses (and to deter others).

That just leaves “Screwing Up,” which I’ve intentionally left for last because it is a very wide grey area.  When you “Screw Up” you are typically in a scenario where you know what the possible outcomes may be, you have all the right tools as your disposal to make a decision, and you make a decision…but you still fail.  This could be as routine as taking a different way to work to avoid traffic, only to end up taking longer to get there and be late.  For Security Forces specifically it may be responding to a loud noise incident, seeing there is a fight in progress, and attempting to break up the fight without backup to stop the violence immediately, leading to escalation of the fight and potential harm to the responding Defender. 

There are probably plenty of examples in your own lives where you were in a tough spot, made a call, and still failed.  These are the moments that your growth potential is probably at its greatest.  Similar to Maj Mack (my counterpart at the 423d Security Forces Squadron) mentioned in an earlier commentary failure is what builds resiliency if we allow ourselves to learn from it.  The message from CSAF down has been to feel empowered to make decisions and act on them, and take ownership of failures when they happen. The painful part of “Screwing Up” is that sometimes when you fail, you fail at a critical task that may lead to impacts on the mission (e.g., not generating sorties on time, letting the wrong person on the base, financial impact on Airmen’s personal pay) and there may be other consequences.  While loss of a position or disciplinary action may not be pleasant in the moment, I contend that it is still a valuable learning tool and you are better off having tried something and failed than not doing anything at all. 

As military members, we are all responsible for issuing and obeying, orders but innovation only comes from taking calculating risks with a chance of failure.  Being afraid to take these risks will eventually lead to stagnation and potentially mission fail anyway.  Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong, but the mission will still move on.  What matters is what you learn from those “wrong” times to make the mission more effective the next time.  So the next time you (or one of your troops) fail at a task, ask yourself – did I mess this up, screw this up, or fudge this up?