“I’m not pro-failure, I’m pro-learning.” Astro Teller, Google X.
“Failure is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature.” Rachel Simmons, Smith College.
“The greatest enemy of learning is knowing.” saying/proverb
Sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to persuade people to discuss near misses and mistakes, even though we all appreciate how these provide fantastic learning opportunities.
How can you, whether you are a senior leader or a KMer, encourage the braver kinds of knowledge sharing?
- Frame discussions of errors as learning opportunities. Most modern work is complex, time-bound, and error-prone. Near misses and errors usually occur as a result of this, rather than due to simple incompetence. Ensuring employees understand this framing will help to encourage open discussion. A single near-miss can be reframed as a “great catch” and identifying the contributory factors behind a near miss or mistake offers the opportunity to improve the system of service delivery as a whole.
- Invite people to think in an aspirational way and speak up. Be curious about how they think improvements could be made. Ask them to investigate whether the delivery of all their work was as high quality as they would wish, and if not, what changes would help them.
- Respond to potential problems in an appreciative, respectful and helpful/problem-solving way. Remember that the best returns for organisations come from improving their systems, rather than writing off incidents as caused by a one-off screw-up. Early information about shortcomings nearly always mitigates the size and impact of future large-scale failures. Ensure your staff understand that avoiding these larger scale problems is your motivation.
- Remind people of the motivation and purpose behind their work. Working on improving complex systems in order to deliver a larger “good” can feel more valuable than trawling through depressing mistakes, whether they’re your own or other people’s. This can be easier in some businesses than others, but most firms and individuals can identify some higher purpose if given time.
- Don’t just accept “fail fast”. Failure has little intrinsic value unless there is also time and opportunity for reflection and learning from that failure. Encourage reflective learning both by individuals and by groups, through techniques such as the After Action Review.
If you are interested in psychological safety in knowledge sharing, I highly recommend “The Fearless Organization” by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, which was the inspiration for this post.
Her book is our current K&L book club choice. If you are interested in getting a carefully curated selection of books to support your learning, read more about the book club here.