5 practical ways to help your team learn effectively from failure

July 12, 2017 11:42 am Published byAzesta

Hits: 1616 It is so important that failures that are learnt from, and yet in the UK workplace, many people do their best to sweep failures firmly under the carpet. This leads to fudging results, rolling out projects that don’t actually have the intended impact and a lack of innovation. It might also lead to unreasonable levels of risk if we look at the banking crisis of 2007 as an example!

I believe that in part, this is because our education has trained us to believe there is only one right answer. That the way to get on in life is to avoid making mistakes, when in actual fact erring makes us human and leads to curiosity and massive steps forward in innovation.

Most learning happens on the job when we reflect on both things that go well and things that don’t and apply that learning to future situations. If we want people to learn in our organisations and share that learning with others, then we need to create and environment where people are not attached to their ‘rightness’, where it’s OK to admit mistakes, failure and that we have got it wrong. Only then is the organisation able to progress and to innovate effectively. The benefits of making use of trial and error, prototyping and piloting are enormous.

So, we’re all aware that a blame culture is the enemy of learning from failure and mistakes, but what exactly can you do to create an environment which maximises learning from failure?

1. Help people feel comfortable about being wrong. Have rounds in team meetings where people share something they were wrong about this week or a mistake they have made that they have learned from and encourage them to explain how they think this could help others. Do balance this with successes and encourage learning from those too!

2. Encourage a reflective culture in your team. Role model and encourage thinking and reflect on the day, the week, the month, the project and drawing learning from it and sharing that. Give all your team members a reflective learning journal and show them yours.

3. Build trial and error or piloting into everything you do. People rarely happen upon the best answer the first time. Make it a standard part of the way your team operates that ideas are tested out in small way and the results examined before they are rolled out into a major project.

4. Put processes into place that surface learning from failure. Within your team, this could be project retrospectives and before and after action learning reviews along with post portems to draw lessons from larger failings. If you can get the whole organization to share your approaches, you might broaden this out to include fast, fun, informal peer-to-peer events with presentations and high audience participation that examine failures and widescale ‘dare to share’* events.

5. When things do go wrong, congratulate people for having a go and for the intentions behind whatever they did. If it’s not obvious where the error came from, don’t try and find out! Instead focus on what can be learned from the error, what conclusions and guidance for the future can be drawn rather than whose fault it was. Make concrete plans to put the new learning into practice.

To lift your team’s odds of winning, you need to lift the number of mistakes they make and your potential to learn effectively from them.

* Terminology from some of the processes that The World Bank Group have out into place.

Shirley Gaston

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