It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.
Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:
“Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”
I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.
Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.
When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.
In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.