We all make mistakes. I expect we’ve all had projects that have been, if not an outright failure, at least less successful than hoped. In fact, if you haven’t, it might be worth questioning whether you're challenging yourself enough.
Stretch is essential for leadership learning and development. Without it, your knowledge and capability will stagnate whilst the world moves on around you. Inevitably, stretch involves a risk of potential failure, so this article addresses the question: How do we ‘fail safe’ and leverage mistakes to maximise learning and enhance our performance at work?
Why is it important for leaders to learn from mistakes?
As stated by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson: "The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible." This is particularly true of leaders, who must drive businesses forwards in ambiguous, uncertain and unpredictable contexts, in which success cannot be guaranteed. To avoid being paralysed by indecision or inaction, leaders must develop the ability to learn from mistakes: fail safe, learn fast.
It's typically assumed that experience can mitigate the risk of failure, which of course it can to some extent, but experience doesn’t automatically lead to superior performance. Research with a range of experts from, stock market investors, to software designers, to wine tasters, reveals that performance of highly experienced ‘experts’ is often no better than that of novices, and can even get systematically worse with experience. The key point is that experience can lead to better performance, but it’s the quality of those experiences and how well the individuals have learnt from it that counts. Learning is the differentiator, not experience.
How do we learn to turn mistakes into performance improvements?
Edmondson’s research has shown that most business leaders believe that learning from failure is straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and encourage them to avoid similar mistakes in future.
The reality, though, is that it’s more complicated than it seems.