It can be very beneficial to make mistakes – you’ll end up having learning moments

By Arbresh Useini, 19. August 2019

Mistakes can cost an organization time and money, and in many organizations, mistakes are often hidden by employees if the culture in your organization doesn’t allow them. In worst case, mistakes will never be spoken about again. Nevertheless, there can be a positive effect for organizations to make mistakes – but you need to transform them into learning-moments and that requires psychology safety in the organization. In fact, some of the greatest inventions were made from mistakes. The implantable pacemaker, penicillin, Coca-Cola, and what we love most at Bloch&Østergaard: The Post-it are all invented by mistake. And of course, the most famous historical mistake; Columbus discovering America by mistake, thinking he was heading it to India.

I guess history teaches us that mistakes can lead to prosperity. But mistakes are not only beneficial for big aha-moments or great inventions to gain prosperity, they are also useful for everyday aha-moments. Everyday aha-moments can be as small as understanding the workflow in a collaborative team or optimization of ways of working, stand up meetings or how to use canvas’ in your work. Thus, there can be bigger benefits for organizations to let mistakes happen; It expands your horizons by learning new thing, it lets you reflect about what works and what doesn’t work, it allows a gap for innovation, and it creates a psychological security, letting your team know that you allow mistakes – it leads your team to growth.

Yet, there are organizations where mistakes are not accepted. Often, we find the same pattern occur in organizations that are not ready to grow from failure – what we believe should be learning-moments. A learning-moment appear when you reframe the mistake into something valuable you and/or the team can learn from. It’s all about having a mindset of learning, and if you don’t, it will be hard to have learning-moments and grow because of them. Take these six things that doesn’t allow learning-moments and see how they fit or don’t in your organization.

1. You don’t have a learning-mode culture

WD-40, Amazon, Google, Coca-Cola and Netflix actively use mistakes to create a culture of growth. Simply reframing mistakes in the organization as learning moments can change the outcome. It requires getting the company in a learning-mode, which changes the speed of the business. Learning-mode organizations has a culture of constantly wanting to learn new thing and grow or transform because of it. Learning-mode as a culture, creates a fast decision-speed, and allow us to innovate in a different, yet, faster pace. Learning-mode is more accessible in agile organizations, where transparency is a factor. Transparency in your organization means a culture where mistakes are acceptable and being noticed by anyone, so you all can learn from them. A culture where people feel free to explore, innovate and make mistakes.

2. You don’t allow failure

If you don’t allow mistakes in your organization, people will hide making mistakes and might give the expression of never making them. But if something has to do with people, mistakes can occur – whether they are visible or not. If you have created a culture where mistakes are not embraced, there are two things happening:

  1. Employees are afraid to make mistakes, and
  2. Employees don’t come up with new initiatives in fear of failing.

Both result in uncommitted and unengaged employees. It’s time to let people shine and get out of their hiding places because they are afraid. The number one killer of innovation is having a culture that hesitates to empower employees to take risks. It should be safe to fail.

3. You all look alike

Perhaps there’s only one thing that’s worse than employees who don’t dare to fail, and that’s teams that are statically stuck in doings and ways of thinking. Lack of diversity in organizations causes group dynamics with the same mind patterns, where alternative and innovative ideas do not come at stake.

Diversity in organizations lets organizations grow on ideas, mindsets and innovation. Not only diversity in terms of age and gender, but backgrounds, personalities and experiences bring in new ideas, thoughts and different mindsets to the table. Innovation, ideas and prosperity comes from many people across and within the organization, so help your employees understand that they can contribute to innovation and change, and welcome ideas from everywhere. In a previous podcast episode, Engaging Youth in the Business of Tomorrow (in Danish), you can hear about how the Danish company Carlsberg innovated by inviting ideas from outside, which resulted in a zero-plastic culture.

4. You don’t communicate

Maybe you allow mistakes, but your employees don’t know. Psychology safety, which allows mistakes to be spoken about and learn from, demands a good and clear communication. Communication and transparency across all levels of management result in trust and engagement from employees. The number 1 rule for good communication and transparency is to be clear on what do you expect from each other, and is there a clarity around what we are trying to decide?

I’ve seen leaders give the silent treatment when they weren’t satisfied. E.g. When confronted about any given report he/she wasn’t satisfied with, he/she would reply with, “No answer is also an answer”. This kind of no-communication always accumulate a lot of frustration in employees.

Companies like these, where leaders don’t communicate clearly, suffocate because employees don’t really know if they are on the right path. Organizations need a clear path. Unclear communication can end up in lost valuable knowledge, which is shared in the organization and that leaders might miss.

An organizational network analysis (ONA) can tell you how your organization is networking. Encourage people to be part of decision making, and have a clear communication – even if it’s negative feedback. No answer should never be the answer.

5. Leaders never fail

When we’re out helping organizations, we sometimes encounter leaders that aren’t in learning-mode or in the right mindset to learn new things. Sometimes, this is our greatest challenge. Responsive leaders must lead by example. This requires that you, as a leader, can be more risk-taking, experimental and collaborative. Being conscious incompetent will help you allow people develop by simply admitting when you don’t know.

Leadership isn’t about being in charge, but about taking care about people.

– Garry Ridge

Garry Ridge exemplifies it well in this podcast episode. Taking care of people means helping them to do what their hired to do at their best. Acknowledging when you don’t know will help you along the way, and learning moments will be a normal part of the workplace. Garry Ridge also tells, when he makes a mistake, he celebrates it by saying “YES! I had a learning-moment”. Be like Garry – have learning-moments.

6. You don’t stop up and review – every time

Visions and directions get things started, but it’s inevitable to make some mistakes along the way. Instead of hiding the mistake, and never talk about it again, make sure you talk about what you’ve learned. But reviewing should also happen when things go as they should.

Most leaders think it will take forever to review any direction along the way, but it shouldn’t necessarily be like that. When you make strategies and ask the organization to execute them without any review, you’ll end up in an infinite circle of strategy and execution, without pausing and reflecting on what went well or if everybody is on the right path. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming event, though. Sometimes two minutes are enough.

At Bloch&Østergaard, every half year we plan the next six months. Every strategic initiative is written on a post-it, and as time goes, we each choose the ones we want to work with. After ending every task, we review them together. What went well, what worked, what didn’t, and what did we learn? Through this kind of transparency, it allows us to review and have learning moments.

Create a growth culture with learning-moments

Can you recognize your organization in these six ways of suffocating good ideas? Then, it may be time to rethink your culture of growth through mistakes.

There can be hidden benefits in making mistakes:

  1. No one tries to cover their mistakes – instead everybody has a chance to learn from them.
  2. Mistakes can speed up innovation, because the fear of risks is smaller when mistakes are allowed.
  3. It allows your employees to be curious on the mistakes, and you’ll all learn new things.
  4. It is part of creating psychological safety

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