The old adage of “The person who never made a mistake, never made anything” is the starting point of a discussion about failure.
Need to Learn Ourselves
Simply put, we learn from failure. Sometimes, we humans have very thick heads. Someone can tell us how ‘it’ should not be done and what to avoid (our parents for example) yet we go ahead against all odds and try ‘it’ anyway. We fail (just as they told us we would) but now we have learned. Getting the message in advance wasn’t enough.
“I learned through the school of hard knocks.”
“I went to university to learn to be an engineer. But I didn’t start my real learning until I was on the job.”
Societies learn that “war is hell”. But each subsequent generation starts its own wars; they seem to need to learn for themselves that “war is hell”.
How Many Mistakes To Learn?
Jim Bleech, an acknowledged managing consulting sage, tells the story of one of his first jobs in the real world. Although he had a franchise for a packaged system for selling, he had never sold anything in his life. Now he was selling the art of selling. Today he questions his own sanity at the time.
After several months without success, he called back the franchiser in frustration, complaining about his own inability to sell this package. He received a gruff reply of, “It takes 500 mistakes to learn this business. And the sooner you make the mistakes, the sooner you’ll be successful. So, get on with it and quit your complaining!”
Jim recounts that he started counting his mistakes, crossing them off as they occurred, predicting to his long-suffering wife that he would be successful by May. And he was!
Animal and human babies learn by mistakes with mama hovering nearby, trying to give guidance. “I told you that would hurt if you did that; now see what you have done!”
The Learning Environment
If learning is done through mistakes, then the learning process must accommodate mistakes. In most companies today, it does not. Parents scream at children who seem to deliberately not take advice. Bosses humiliate or even punish employees who make mistakes.
One of the basics of The CCCC Approach is the early establishing of a Learning Environment, where failure is handled as a normal event; it is not handled by increasing the level of fear. The higher the level of fear, the more that mistakes will be hidden (with further negative consequences) and the greater the number of excuses, finger pointing, and dishonesty to justify the failure. I recommend that you create a similar learning environment, in your own company or department.
Of the many components of the CCCC Learning Environment, two will be of interest here: (a) humiliation of others is not permitted in a learning environment and (b) mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning. In effect, the Learning Environment is a safe environment, where one can express the deepest thoughts, hurts, ideas, mistakes without fear of humiliation or recrimination. Participants list the hurts, pains and fears without comment or judgment, blame or finger pointing, and, starting from there, go about seeking a solution collectively. (This often takes the form of ‘debriefings’, ‘lessons learned’, ‘post-mortems’ or ‘problem-solving’.)
In the early years of my running my software consulting company, a new manager, Marvin, full of promise, was overseeing his first software development project with a public transportation company in our city. Because of my experience, I could see that if he kept on the track he was on he would get into trouble. I told him so, but he justified his choices – although I was far from being convinced. Being a firm believer in delegation, I allowed him to continue his direction. By the time he was done, this fixed-price project had a cost overrun of $50,000. This mistake cost me $50,000, not to mention the profit we should have experienced of a similar amount.
Marvin admitted to me, after: “You were right, why didn’t I listen?” He carried that $50,000 loss with him and was determined never to lose control of a project again. Later, he would use that story to instruct young managers under him and, also, to use the lesson of tolerance for others’ mistakes.
Was it of $50,000 value? Marvin went on to become a Vice President in the company and finally, Senior Vice President of our firm. He earned us millions of dollars. (Today, he’s the President of his own successful company.) I also learned from the experience. First, I appreciated that the learning environment is essential to constructive learning. Second, I learned that there is such as thing as premature delegation. You don’t have to lose $50,000 to teach someone a lesson. – Never again.
The resume, or bio, I send out for proposals or making presentations, lists my ‘wonderful’ achievements: CEO, rocket scientist, inventions widely used today, a book, many technical papers and presentations, international operations, several languages, etc. Great stuff. Great guy. Well, what about the unlisted failures? Mine include: numerous business failures, selected and then fired at least six vice presidents, lost a ton of money on a ‘wise’ business acquisition, and many I’m still too embarrassed to mention. A few years ago, in a dour mood, I listed my failures in a resume format. I think I still have that ‘resume’ somewhere. Anyway, the list of failures far