Change management: learn from your mistakes

Research indicates that organisations undergo major change about once every three years, while smaller changes occur almost continually. Yet more than 40% of reorganisations fail to meet their objectives, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

To ensure the same mistakes don’t happen again, organisations need to evaluate why objectives were not met, look at what went wrong and encourage employees to do the same. In a nutshell, organisations need to ensure they learn from their mistakes – especially when managing change.

Some new research, the Learning Health Check Survey, conducted by training management consultants MaST International and Peter Honey Publications, throws some light on the difficulties of learning from mistakes. It also investigates common areas where people can often fail to learn, how this can be improved and how to stop mistakes happening again in the future.

More than four-fifths (85%) of those surveyed claimed to treat ‘everything that happens as a learning opportunity’. ‘Everything’ would, of course, include learning from mistakes. However, only 58% of the same people claimed to be able to describe precisely what they have learned.

The difference between the two figures means that learning is often left at a tacit, rather than explicit, level. Settling for tacit learning, when you know you have learned something but cannot articulate it with any precision, could explain why so often the same mistakes happen again. When managing change within an organisation, it is important to pinpoint and communicate lessons learned to prevent repetition of previous mistakes and help develop the organisation in the future.

For example, consider national disasters such as the Hatfield rail crash in 2000, where, following investigation and recommendation, rail companies insisted that lessons had been learned, only to recur just a few years later (such as Potters Bar in 2002 and Grayrigg in 2007).

Learning needed

In an ideal world, a mistake would only occur once because it would have been learned from. To ensure change is effective, organisations and employees need to learn from things that go wrong – any mistake, large or small, flags up the need for some learning mistakes are powerful learning opportunities.

Indeed, some lessons can be learned from mistakes that cannot be learned in any other way. From a learning point of view, mistakes, while not exactly welcome, are certainly special.

Without producing an action plan, lessons become forgotten and only 49% of those surveyed said that they carried their lessons learned forward into ‘feasible action plans’. This suggests there is a tendency to assume that lessons learned will inevitably spill over into improved/changed future actions – but normally it ends up as just an interesting insight or vague intention to heed the lesson learned in the future.

This dangerous assumption could explain why mistakes made by, for example, hospitals or social services, continually recur. It is one thing to be able to describe what you have learned (and 42% of those surveyed couldn’t do that) and another to ensure it gets actioned. Organisations tend to have grand ideas about how to change their current way of working, but fail to implement these changes as no action plans are put in place or adhered to.

Reluctance to pinpoint lessons learned and make action plans in the wake of a mistake is perhaps an understandable reaction to operating in an increasingly litigious ‘blame culture’. All too easily people are quick to cover their mistake or spread the blame to avoid them being singled out and potentially fired.

Intelligent mistakes

However, not all mistakes are necessarily bad – it is important to distinguish between different sorts of mistakes. There are stupid mistakes, which are the consequence of carelessness or negligence, but there are also intelligent mistakes, which stem from experimentation and calculated risk-taking.

The latter are the sort of mistakes that Bill Gates apparently approves of. The Microsoft founder is often quoted as saying: “I like to hire people who have made mistakes it shows they take risks.”

But whatever category the mistake falls into, the real value lies in what we can learn from it, not from the mistake itself. However, moving from a blame culture, where mistakes are punished, to a gain culture, where mistakes are learned from, is far from straightforward.

Of course, how your line managers behave is essential to creating a culture where mistakes are treated as valuable learning opportunities. Here’s how eight changes to behaviour could make all the difference:

  • Explore instead of judging and fault finding
  • Remain calm instead of being emotional
  • Find out exactly what happened rather than reacting to what you think happened
  • Focus more on the processes that allowed the mistake to occur than on the person for getting it wrong
  • Focus on the causes rather than the effects
  • Work out lessons learned and produce robust, feasible action plans
  • Assume the mistake-maker wants to learn rather than assuming they should feel guilty or be contrite
  • Treat mistakes as inevitable and as learning opportunities instead of things to dread or avoid.

Rather than just focusing on learning from mistakes, it is important to consider how to learn effectively. Our survey analysed ways in which those surveyed learned and provided tips on how to improve learning in the future. Directors, when analysing their learning techniques in the survey, rated themselves higher than any other job group in the following statements:

  • ‘I search for ways to transfer lessons learned in one situation to a range of other situations.’ (82.8% of directors compared to 65.6% for all other job categories)
  • ‘I experiment with new and different ways of doing things in order to learn.’ (74% compared to 51.9%)
  • ‘I solicit feedback to find out how others perceive me.’ (64% compared to 49%)
  • ‘I ask myself how many ways could I apply this learning?’ (53% compared to 42%)

Two conclusions can be drawn: either the directors in the sample are prone to exaggeration or they really are doing these things more often than less senior people. If the latter explanation is closer to the truth, that means directors need to do more to create environments at work where these learning behaviours are actively encouraged in others, rather than merely indulging themselves.

Focusing on current strengths within an organisation is also necessary in implementing change. Teaching other employees techniques that have proved successful can help progress an organisation, rather than continually focusing on the negatives.

If learning, not just from mistakes but from everything that happens, is to be made the priority that it deserves, then directors need to take suitable action. This includes to deliberately role model learning behaviours to be generous providers of learning opportunities for others and to build learning into the ‘culture’ of the organisation and use every opportunity to champion the importance of learning – both for the organisation and for the fulfilment of individuals.

Our experts

Dr Peter Honey, Peter Honey Publications

Dr Peter Honey is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He has worked for Ford Motor Company and British Airways and as a consultant to organisations such as the Bank of England, AstraZeneca, the Automobile Association, ICI and ICL. He is a Fellow of the RSA, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Institute of Management Consultants, and the Institute of Training and Occupational Learning.

Mark Mercer, MaST

Mark Mercer is an experienced performance coach, team facilitator and personal development trainer who has helped individuals and teams enhance their performance and on­going effectiveness. Prior to joining MaST, Mercer worked for seven years as a consultant to both business and sports organisations.

Top tips… learn from your mistakes

  1. Reflect on the context in which learning is applied – analyse problems and issues from the offset
  2. Identify strategies that can be put in place to avoid the same mistakes
  3. Produce an action plan, allocate tasks and give deadlines
  4. Constantly revisit your action plan
  5. Share learning with colleagues to ensure they know of the improvements to be made

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