Learning from our mistakes

In the wake of the debacle regarding the mistaken announcement of Best Film at the Oscars, I could not help but reflect on our tendency to catastrophise mistakes. We purport to learn from mistakes and not to make the same mistake twice. At the same time we point fingers with impunity and demand that heads should roll at even minor missteps.

If we demand the swift exit of the culprit from their role, do we lose the learning of that person in relation to their specific mistake? Businesses say that “lessons will be learned”, but we see variations of the original problem crop up again and again, or we try to regulate our way out of the potential to make the same mistake again.

Some mistakes clearly result in life and death situations (as pilots and doctors well know), some have a global impact (the 2008 crash), some may affect the company’s value in the short term, such as Samsung’s Note7 woes. But most mistakes are of such small consequence that they certainly do not warrant the public flogging we so frequently engage in, and they certainly do not warrant the firing of a valuable employee. Replacing someone and re-training a new person is an expensive and time-consuming activity too.

At the basis of many mistakes is the very human propensity of not being perfect, of making bad decisions, or letting our environment seduce us into atypical behaviour. I have yet to meet the executive who has not made a few mistakes on the way up the career ladder, or who have not trusted someone else to get it right first time, only to be disappointed.

Why do we find it so easy to blame others, the situation, the weather, anything to hand, rather than put our hand up to say “sorry, I will learn from this and will not repeat the mistake”? I have seen businesses where a blame culture develops and everyone tries to find someone to point fingers at, and nobody willing to take responsibility, when things do not go to plan.

In an environment where agile working is becoming more and more prevalent, we accept almost by definition that things are not going to be perfect before we implement the final solution. We make the best decision in the moment, we implement, evaluate, adjust, make new decisions based on the outcome, and then repeat the process a number of times. Perfection is not what we are seeking, so we should also accept mistakes as part of this iterative learning process

How do you handle mistakes – your own and those of your team? How do you ensure learning happens at both individual and business level? How do you coach for a better outcome next time?

I do accept that the buck should stop somewhere, but good corporate governance should create checks and balances before a simple mistake turns into a disaster. Should we perhaps reflect on the scale and impact of a decision before we demand heads roll?

Taking calculated risks, and resiliently bouncing back from negative outcomes by learning the lessons at hand, are part and parcel of leadership.