“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett.
Easy for him to say. He just had to describe the human condition, he didn’t have to run a business. Why is it that businesses find it so hard to learn from their mistakes?
Harvard Business Review ran a great article recently on this subject. We take a look at their findings and suggest some ways that continuous learning can help teams to learn better in the workflow.
HBR identifies four kinds of biases that can act as blockers to continuous learning in teams and wider in organisations.
- Bias towards success
- Bias towards action
- Bias towards fitting in
- Bias towards experts
1. Bias towards success
When could focusing on success be a blocker to learning? When it’s at the cost of everything else. What can this look like?
- Fear of failure: If the expectation is a never ending victory march, then detours into experimentation and risk-taking are stifled. Managers push for results. In the short term that means don’t take any chances. It might get you through next quarter, but you’re missing opportunities to learn and go into different directions. What might you be missing?
- Fixed mindset: In her must-read book, Mindset, Carol Dweck identifies two mindsets that managers (or anyone) can have. You can have a fixed mindset – you believe in natural talent and smarts, you’ve either got it or you don’t. You value opportunities to show how smart you are. Or, the Growth mindset – you believe in potential to change, grow, learn. You value opportunities to learn and don’t fear making mistakes. Fixed mindset leaders encourage people to stick to what they do best. Again, learning and experimentation is sacrificed.
- Focus on past performance: An extension of the fixed mindset is to repeat what you did before to win – the opposite of ‘fail better’. This leads to hiring and promotion decisions that focus on people who have shown they can do more of what worked. HBR’s research shows the better long-term people strategy is to hire and promote those with a thirst for learning and openness to new ideas.
- Blame game: Again part of the fixed mindset. In blame cultures, if you succeed, it’s because you did all the right things. If you lose, you look for blame. Organisations where blame is laid inhibit learning. Even if you’re taking the step to reflect, you’re not doing it with a learning mentality. You’re looking to point a finger. HBR’s study showed that We found that “participants who took responsibility for doing poorly on the first activity were almost three times as likely to succeed on the second one. They learned from their failure and made better decisions as a result.”
What can you do?
- Encourage risk-taking: Remove fear of failure. Are you using tools and techniques to discover and filter new content to help spark new ideas?
- Encourage a growth mindset: Reward and encourage learning and challenging the status quo. Set the tone by sharing what you’ve found useful, and invite others to do the same.
- Focus on learning aptitude as much as past achievements: Are you hiring people who know how to learn, and want to get better? Knowing how to filter and distill information is a key skill.
2. Bias towards action
Theodore Roosevelt said: “In a moment of decision, the best thing to do is the right thing, the next best is to do the wrong thing, the worst is to do nothing.”
Maybe in war, but does that work in organisations? Jeff Bezos may have ‘Bias for Action’ enshrined in Amazon’s leadership principles, but what are the side-effects of shoot first, ask questions later?
- Exhaustion: You are not making good decisions when you’re exhausted. You’re not learning anything either.
- Lack of reflection: Organisations like to be proud of going fast, being fast-moving, agile places where you never look back. Ever been too busy to have a post-project review? Something’s not right in that situation.
What can you do differently?
- Make time to reflect: Harvard has conducted a deep piece of research with WIPRO, the global consulting firm. They found that people who took 15 minutes a day to reflect on what they’re doing, what’s working, what could be done better, improved their productivity by 20% over those who just relentlessly marched forward. Use tools to annotate and remind yourself what worked, what you learned. Or just make notes on your phone.
- Sleep / walk: Not at the same time. But getting rest and also walking and exercise help to set the mood for reflection and can often generate new ideas.
- Actively reflect as a team: Personal reflection is one thing, but it’s more powerful to work as a team to analyse performance. Again, good social and learning tools and platforms can support this. AARs (After Action Reviews) are a good model for this.
3. Bias towards fitting in
Sometimes you can spot this bias in how new joiners are onboarded. Too often that learning experience involves taking people diverse backgrounds, outlooks and strengths and telling them: forget all that, be like us. And of course, we want everyone to be on the same team – but it creates blockers for learning:
- Believing we have to conform: Fitting in is one thing. Stifling your strengths is another. But it happens, especially if the organisation sends a message via its values and principles that there’s one way of doing things here. It can inhibit new ideas and unstructured learning. And actually, it’s not a good career move in the long term. HBR’s research shows that “nonconforming behaviors (such as dressing down at a business meeting or using one’s own PowerPoint theme rather than the organization’s) raise others’ estimation of a person’s competence and status.”
- Hiding your light: Compromising or not using your abilities is an obvious blocker to learning, yet HBR suggests this is common in organizations with a dominant culture. Your drivers to apply your strengths and keep learning and developing can be ground down (though the converse can happen -you can be challenged to develop new ones and learn differently in line with the organisation’s values)
What can you do differently?
Challenge the norms:
Make nonconformity more of a virtue than it is in most organisations. Do this as part of onboarding. Build in the expectation that people will subvert the norm. Amazon’s AWS business was developed by a rogue team operating well outside of the day-to-day business goals. So credit to them – they also have ‘Learn and be curious’ as a leadership principle. As Bezos said of AWS and why they didn’t just stick to the knitting: “The common question that gets asked in business is, why? That’s a good question, but an equally valid question is, why not?’” Can you help people ask “why not” in their everyday learning? Could you challenge a team to come up with one new idea based on what they’ve learned from external influencers this week
Effective informal learning is going to throw up a range of different ideas. Leaders need to be open to them, reward people who think differently and take risks – even (especially) if they don’t work out. Back to that ‘make failure ok’ principle. That’s a precondition in any learning organisation. Call it out and reward the innovations – even the ones that don’t come good – there’s value in the act of learning and exploring
4. Bias towards Experts
“Call in the consultants” – too often the default battle cry of the senior leader. And on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with getting advice and guidance from experts on your knottiest problems. But is it good for learning? HBR argue it can lead to problems:
- Narrow view of experts: If you only listen to a certain cadre – people at a certain level in your business, from certain institutions, firms – your learning will be limited. It can lead to groupthink. Informal and social learning networks can help you break out of the echo chamber and let some other voices in.
- Inadequate frontline involvement: The people who know best how to solve problems are likely the ones in front of your customers. But if they’re not invited to reflect and share ideas in a democratic unfiltered way – which informal and social learning can support – then the lessons learned by the experts is missing a vital channel.
What can you do differently?
Let people learn from – and share – their experience:
Encourage individuals and teams to share insights. Use tools enable teams to tag, flag and comment on challenges and have them shared without filtering and delays.
Leave your echo chamber:
As the late Jay Cross called it, let some serendipity in. Use informal learning tools to follow experts from different fields, read less obvious resources. Let different voices in to influence your learning.
10 ways your team can learn better
So here’s 10 ways you can temper these biases and be a better learning organisation
- Take risks – explore less obvious sources for inspiration
- Encourage a growth mindset and openness to new ideas
- Hire and promote for learning aptitude and skills
- Make time to reflect on what you’ve learned
- Take breaks to deepen reflection
- Reflect as a team
- Challenge the norms – push new ideas
- Reward the rebels
- Listen to your frontline
- Leave your echo chamber and follow diverse experts
Nobody likes to make mistakes, and in a high-stakes organisation, the cost of them may seem high. But they’re worth it. Take comfort from the fabled IBM story from the 60s. When a manager made a mistake which cost the firm millions, he was brought in front of his superior. “I’m ready to resign before you fire me”, the manager said. “Fire you?” the boss responded. “I just invested millions in educating you. Now let’s get a return on that.”
That’s the Sam Beckett school of smarter working.