Thursday, 11 April 2013

Learning from failure is not the same as learning from mistakes.

Failure We hear the terms "Failure" and "Mistake" very often in Knowledge Management circles; often treated as synonyms. In particular, the terms "Learning from Failure" and "Learning from Mistakes" are almost interchangeable.

But these words are not complete synonyms, particularly in Knowledge Management terms.

According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, a Mistake is an act or judgement that is misguided or wrong, while a Failure is a lack of success.

So I could Fail at something, without it being a Mistake (lets call that a Non-Mistake Failure, or an NMF). I could try something that was a stretch or a gamble, and that turned out to be impossible. I could try something unknown, and fail to succeed, but without making an error in judgement, or doing anything wrong. Edison famously had a whole string of failures before inventing the light bulb, but none of them were mistakes; they were all part of a process of enlightened trial, failure and (ultimately) success.

A mistake implies error. In KM terms, it implies that you "should have known better", and "should have known better" implies that knowledge was available, but not accessed or not used, even though it "should have been". To learn from a mistake, you need to both acknowledge that available knowledge (that you now realise you should have known), and also sharpen up your Knowledge Management (so that in future, you acquire the knowledge you "should know" before you start an enterprise). Repeat failures are always mistakes.

An NMF could be a failure due to knowledge not being available at all. In KM terms, an NMF could come through trying something new, like Edison, and discovering something that nobody could have known, or could have foreseen. To learn from an NMF, you need to acknowledge the new knowledge, and build this into your knowledge base, so that you can move on. You don't necessarily need to sharpen your KM. An NMF is perfectly acceptable, provided you have done your pre-learning and eliminated all known errors and mistakes.  Repeating known mistakes, on the other hand, is not acceptable.

Allow a lot of failure, and you will meet a lot of success.

Allow a lot of mistakes, and you won't.

It's as simple as that.

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