Learning to Make Mistakes
Posted on July 10th, 2017

“You know nothing Jon Snow” – Ygritte, Wildling, Beyond the Wall (George RR Martin)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I will continue to make them in the future. Although it’s very hard to accept at the time, the more mistakes I make, the better I become. No one is an expert, or even any good, after the first or even after several attempts at a new skill. Failure and mistakes are the way we learn and develop skills. This is particularly true of interpersonal business skills that require an improvisational approach such as leadership, sales or coaching conversations. “Learning from our mistakes” is a common concept that most of us believe in, but do we put it into action? Is it part of our corporate culture, L&D (Learning and Development) or Talent Development strategy? I’d say not very often. In fact, I’d say that most organizations have a very low tolerance for failure and mistakes and perhaps understandably so, considering that mistakes often cost money.

If you see a star in your organization that is a better salesperson or coach than you are, that means they have had the time and opportunity to fail more often than you have. The star salesperson held up as an example of how everyone on the team should be executing the sales process is the star because they have had more opportunities to fail. Put another way, the scope of your success is based on how many mistakes you’ve made, assuming of course that you’ve learned from your mistakes and don’t make the same ones again and again. If you believe that some people are just naturally gifted salespeople or leaders, think again.  Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated (2008), and Andres Ericsson in Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016) both make a compelling argument through research that whether it’s sales, business, music, or athletics, individuals that work hard and practice far longer and more effectively than their peers are more successful. No one is born a great investment banker, coach, or salesperson – they’ve had the opportunity to survive the consequences of their failures and have taken advantage of them by learning and improving.   

It’s clear that you need to make mistakes in order to learn but how many mistakes can a person afford to make on the job before they’re asked to move on? The answer, like the answer to most difficult questions, is that it depends.

Obsession with Perfection (and the consequences of failure)

I cannot recall how many times (but it’s a lot)  that I’ve heard an executive say something like, “We just hire smart and experienced people, we don’t need to spend much on training.” The same executives say equally senseless things like “failure is not an option” or “all we need is perfect execution.” Perfectionism is one of the plagues of our society because it promotes a fear of failure. We avoid moving outside our comfort zone and embracing risks as a result. People will not take risks if they are managed by fear of failure. If they don’t take risks, they won’t try new things in order to improve. “I’ve been coaching people (or selling) successfully for twenty years, obviously I’m good enough!” is another equally foolish thing I often hear. Experienced people reject traditional training because it does not focus on improving their skills, it concentrates on telling them what they already know. There is also a body of research (see aforementioned books) that proves that if you do something the same way for a long time, the state of automaticity, without trying new things, without seeking to improve through deliberate practice, you get worse at the skill over time. The next time you hear a salesperson say they don’t need training because they’ve been selling the same way for 20 years, odds are they’re getting worse every year.

Learning from Mistakes (taking responsibility)

Learning from our mistakes takes a level of personal responsibility that is difficult for many business people to accept, mainly because of our need for perfection and control. Unfortunately, blame and finger pointing are the usual outcomes. Avoiding failure has been drilled into us since we were in school but consider that the willingness to fail is willingness to succeed; people who avoid failure, avoid trying to improve. All too often, blaming others is accompanied by a sense of entitlement that is driven by an unwillingness to accept that you may not perfect. Blame is far too prevalent as a means to avoid responsibility. I have witnessed corporate cultures where it’s common practice to hunt for mistakes and to assign blame for every one of them. Don’t get me wrong, mistakes can hurt and cost a company, but if they are punishable, everyone will avoid taking responsibility, work in fear, and not learn or grow. If you don’t own your mistakes because you can’t afford the consequences, you won’t learn from them.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

― Albert Einstein

Failure Strategy (building failure into the process with Deliberate Practice)

The solution is two-fold: mistakes made in the spirit of trying to improve should be judged differently and a safe place for people to practice interpersonal business skills is required. A safe space where people can practice new skills and make mistakes without financial or social consequences would amplify the return on investment of L&D investments such as Leadership, Coaching, Sales, etc. Safe practice also needs to include a coaching and feedback system that does not negatively affect promotions or compensation. The practice should be deliberate, measurable and delivered by a professional that can focus on practicing not ‘telling’ the learner what to do. I envision practicing content from learning programs as well as situational practice sessions, focusing on developing skills, receiving relevant feedback, and exploring difficult conversation topics like diversity and inclusion. There are two kinds of feedback that are critical to deliberate practice. When a learner fails to apply a skill in the conversation, the feedback should point this out and ensure there is an understanding. For example, if during a sales conversation the learner neglects to respond appropriately to an objection (using  empathy and good open-ended questions, for e.g.)  the coach should discuss during the post-scenario debrief and target it during practice. The second feedback skill is emotional, how it felt to be in the conversation. In the same example of a sales conversation, the additional feedback would focus on how the customer felt when their objection was responded to without empathy.  An example might be, “When you jumped right into your response and your agenda, I felt ignored and became more disinterested as a result.”  

Learning Shift, Culture Shift

Most learning and development organizations still focus on knowledge transfer, during which they tell their learners what to do and let them figure out how to turn that knowledge into real skill on the job. The 70-20-10 model is evidence that most skills (70%) are acquired by doing, yet the majority of L&D budgets still focus on what to teach. By embracing safe and deliberate practice, budgets can shift to helping individuals improve their skills, develop their own style, and to make those inevitable mistakes without consequences. The results are a faster time to value for new hires, increased revenue and skills for experienced learners, and a decrease in the amount and costs of mistakes.

Perfection and control are deeply embedded into corporate culture, and the costs of failure are hard to predict. Embedding safe and deliberate practice into a culture is a great way to lower the cost of mistakes and more importantly elevate interpersonal business skills.

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