Friday, 3 July 2009

Learn from mistakes, or learn from success?

Trial and error, or trial and success? Which is the better learning mechanism?

A thought provoking piece here, makes the argument that people learn much better from their mistakes, as a result of the emotional charge and the emotional scars that failure brings.
I know this is true on an individual level, but do we really have to fail before we can learn?

I believe that on a corporate level, or as a society, we collectively make the biggest learning steps when we finally succeed.

Think of Edison and his light filament; when did he do the most learning? When he tried each of the 99 options that didn’t work, or when he found the one that did? Now you can argue that he learned from both, but now let’s look at transferring that knowledge. If you were a light bulb maker, which of these two statements would be of most value to you?

1. You can’t make a light bulb filament out of cat hair
2. You can make a
light bulb filament out of tungsten

It is learning from the successes that are most valuable for others.

Now let’s look at KM in an organisation, and how an organisation learns. The ideal for an organisation is that it learns from the *minimum of mistakes*. We know that it is human nature to learn best from mistakes, but we don’t want to be at the mercy of human nature*. We don’t want people to have to screw up in order to learn. We don’t want mistakes and screw ups if we can possibly avoid it, because mistakes and screwups can cost money, they can cost lives (in certain cases), and they can cost careers if they are big enough. I know that people find a mistake a powerful learning experience, but KM in organisations must aim at countering this, and giving people access to learning from other’s mistakes. (In fact it is notable that where mistakes are most serious, as in the Military, the greatest attention is given to systematic learning and KM)

Somehow we need to make that learning as powerful as possible. We don’t just want to say “do X”, we want to say “Do X, because you can get into real trouble if you don’t”. Or even “Do X – I didn’t, and let me tell you what happened”. Ultimately, if X is definitely the right thing to do, we might want to say “Do X. That’s the company way. If you work here, X is what you do”

Basically, we cannot afford to let people learn from mistakes when mistakes are avoidable. The first time a mistake is made, it can be a mistake only in hindsight – at the time it might have been the best option based on the knowledge available at the time. It may have been a justifiable risk. The second time that the same mistake is made, is a failure of KM. The new knowledge available should have warned of the probability of the mistake. The hindsight from the first mistake should become foresight to avoid the second.

An organisation should learn from its mistakes, but only once! The best approach is to learn once from mistakes, and many times from success.

*in fact most management systems are attempts to guard against human nature.

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