Learning organizations? Make mistakes!

It’s a terrific utopia: learning organizations, continuous feedback loops and lifelong learning. And as a result, you’ll get engaged employees, flourishing organizations and competitive advantage. But while we do want our teams and ourselves to learn, we also want to meet this quarter’s deadlines and targets. There is a paradox here, seemingly incompatible goals that we’ll never accomplish at the same time. And because of that, we react first on “threats”: targets and deadlines that can be missed. But where does that leave our learning organizations? Are they doomed to be sacrificed for the sake of quarterly results? Not necessarily. Some helpful advice (not at all meant to be exhaustive):

First of all, it helps to be aware of the strong urge that KPI’s entail. It’s not easy to ignore them, so better to be aware and make a conscious choice whether to act upon that urge. That tuck in the direction of targets exists whether you like it or not. Start noticing that it tucks you and your team. “Hey guys, I think we’re just stressing out to make the quarterly targets. I was wondering, are they still helpful?” Then, it’s easier to discuss whether you just need to fix the goals of the month or instead ditch them in favor of improving for the next period.

Adam Grant made very clear in his book Give & Take that go-getters will not help your organization a lot. People who tend to try to get the best for themselves, are not so good in helping out others. The only reason why those takers help others, is because they think it will make them more. Contrastingly, productive givers tend to help others if it’s not too much of a trouble. If you are able to create a culture of giving and helping, all people help each other learn. And, according to Grant’s research, will come out more successful in the end.

And perhaps most importantly: accept that mistakes are unavoidable. No matter how much control and importance, mistakes will happen every once in a while. There is a famous study between hospitals on failure reporting. The hospital with a safe culture, where mistakes were accepted as part of the job and people were not scape-goated, there appeared to be more mistakes. Further research however showed that the hospital with an unsafe culture had more mistakes, but these mistakes went unreported. If an organization has a belief that mistakes are wrong and reprimands people who make mistakes, they risk people covering up their mistakes. Talk about them, learn from them, but do not ignore them. Just as in the widely shared story in which a stock broker just lost millions of dollars with a not-so-smart deal. His boss didn’t fire him, instead he said “I’ve just invested millions of dollars in your training”. People who make a mistake and understand what they did, are far less likely to make that mistake again. Instead, they do it differently or ask for help.

Be a lifelong learner, and help others to learn. What have you learned today?

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