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Learn From Your Mistakes

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Sometimes, we make mistakes. Even if we’ve analyzed our options thoroughly and made what we thought was a good decision, we don’t always end up with the result that we wanted or expected. We uncover that we’ve made an erroneous assumption, that the world wasn't quite the way we thought it was.

Some people place this in the category of failure. But you don’t want to make a mistake and not capture some insight from that experience. It’s important to learn from your actions, especially the ones that didn’t work out the way you expected. This learning can be implemented at both an individual and a company-wide level.

Keep a Learning Log

In order to make sure that you learn from mistakes, consider keeping a learning log.
A learning log is a notebook that lets you identify the behaviors, actions and decisions that have resulted in a lack of success. Keeping a learning log reduces the chances that you will repeat those mistakes. But it doesn’t just help the individual learner — it also gives you a vehicle for conveying the insights within the entire organization.

A learning log helps you determine which of your actions have been successful or unsuccessful. It helps you assess your success (or lack thereof), determine the reasons behind that result and gain insight into what is driving it.

Just like you might take notes when you listen to a presentation in order to retain what you learn, you need to have a learning log that helps you keep track of the results of your experiential learning. You should write down the reasons why your plan didn’t work or didn’t perform the way you wanted it to. You can use a learning log to track unsuccessful product launches, sales conversations, hiring decisions or marketing strategies.

Individual Learning and Organizational Learning

We have a tendency to focus much of our learning activities on individual learning. One reason is that it’s really hard to share our mistakes. We may say to ourselves, “I'm not going to do that again,” but it’s another thing entirely to admit that to our colleagues. In many cases, that's baring our soul, and we're worried that if we do that too often, colleagues might believe we don’t have the skill sets, abilities and capacities needed to perform in the business.

The value of a learning log is that we take our mistakes (which may look like we have destroyed value by losing money) and determine why they occurred so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future. Instead, we can look back at our learning log and say, “I tried that last year, and it didn’t work.”

We frequently forget about mistakes unless we write them down. Most people don't like to recall bad things. We don't talk about these experiences with others because we don't want to admit to failure. But a learning log takes a potential failure and converts it into success, or at least minimizes the potential value destruction that occurs with the failure.

Tracking failures and successes in a learning log also creates a vehicle for organizational learning. It improves the performance of the entire organization, because other employees don’t have to repeat the same mistakes to learn. They can learn from you that this approach to the sales process for this customer is not going to be successful, for example. They don’t have to try it for themselves.

Creating a Corporate Culture of Learning

In order to learn from mistakes across the organization, you must have a corporate culture that accepts risk and vulnerability and does not brand people as failures when they share lessons from their learning log.

If you don't have that, you’ll only hear about people’s successes. But successes are only half the story – sometimes the less important half. The individual may have learned, but the organization doesn’t capture the benefits of learning or reduce the chances of making the same mistake.

You need to have a corporate culture where it is perceived as acceptable to share your mistakes, but how do you create one? What is the format for sharing mistakes, and in what type of setting does it occur?

First, if you don't have a leadership group that sets the context for sharing non-successes, then no one in the organization is going to talk about their mistakes. Employees will feel threatened, and at the very least, they certainly won’t share their mistakes as openly as they do their successes. You could share the information in a one-on-one meeting with your supervisor, but if the organization is really going to learn from what you share in your learning log, then your manager shouldn’t be the only person reacting to it. A more open discussion would be better.

This probably isn’t a public discussion. Instead, maybe it’s a smaller group that is more intimately involved in the decision process. When there are two or three people in the room who raise the right questions, that’s when you get the most insight.

How should the process be structured to yield the most learning? That’s where the learning log becomes very important, because the real value is detailing what was learned. Perhaps the discussion could be framed this way: 90 percent of the time is spent talking about what was learned, and only 10 percent is spent talking about the non-performance. Make the conversation about learning, not about failure.

Learn how to set up your learning log below:

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