Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Learning from mistakes

I subscribe to trainingzone and find some of their articles useful, amid a sea of thinly-disguised sales promotions. A recent example of the useful stuff is the ‘the top 10 bad people managers’ by blogger Simon Kenny, who lists some great examples of mistaken behaviour by managers. (You need to register for trainingzone to view his blog.)

This sort of material reads well: it’s funny, so it sticks in the mind, and it can be a memorable way of highlighting good and bad practice. In a similar vein, one of my favourite management books is (was? it was published in 1992 and is now out of print) My Biggest Mistake, edited by Roger Trapp, a compilation of columns that originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday, contributed by many well-known business leaders of the time, including Richard Branson, John Harvey-Jones and Anita Roddick.

But we only learn from our mistakes if we realise that they are mistakes, and work out alternatives for next time around. It can be dangerous to highlight bad practice in case the bad way is the lesson that stays with the learners. This is the long-standing criticism of training videos by Video Arts and their imitators: people remember the bumbling incompetence shown by the likes of John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson, as these were the scenarios the videos often led with, but not the ‘right way’ solutions hastily tacked on to the end. Simon Kenny’s piece gets round this problem neatly by specifying the lesson learned after each of his ten howlers.

The most powerful variant of this, for me – and I’m drawing on my personal experience – is when I make the mistakes myself. I think we often realise we have made a mistake, but don’t quite know what to do about it, and how to avoid repeating the mistake. We need help. Coaches and mentors can be invaluable here, but another option is the anonymous internet discussion forum; unfortunately, even under the cloak of anonymity, I don’t find many people willing to open up about their mistakes. I’d be interested in suggestions for how to provoke this sort of contribution – a much tougher proposition than how to respond to them.