In Action, Change, Leaders

“There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.” – Archibald MacLeish

It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition that we make mistakes on a regular basis. We can hardly go an hour, much less a day, without messing something up. It might be a task, or a decision, or some kind of interaction with another person. Somewhere, somehow, we’re going to get it wrong.

Another unfortunate part of the human condition is our talent for making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s bad enough to get it wrong the first time, but how many times in our work and our lives do we find ourselves making the same mistake many times? The scary part is that often we don’t even realize it. We can pick out a few mistakes, but how many are we making (and repeating) without being aware? What does this do to our lives & the people around us?

Of course I don’t have some kind of magic wand for fixing the problem. If I did, you’d be paying lots of money to read this. I only know that I’ve seen people and organizations who seem to be better at learning from and not repeating mistakes than others. There are probably lots of things they do differently, but there are a few that stand out.

Stop to think. Some mistakes are obvious because they result in some kind of negative outcome. So when something negative happens, stop and think about why it happened. What could you have done differently that might have changed the outcome? Some of the best sessions I’ve ever been involved in happened when 3 or 4 people sat down together, talked about what went wrong, and implemented changes to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Ask for help. We are blind to an awful lot of our own behaviors. Have somebody nearby who’s willing to be honest with you, who’s not afraid to come to you and point out the negative impact you had (or are having). It’s not always easy to find somebody who’ll do that when you’re the leader. But those people are invaluable. Find one.

Ask someone unusual. A client of ours was losing customers and couldn’t figure out why. So they decided to ask. They sat down with as many customers as they could and asked them for help. What do we do well? What don’t we do well? What do you value most about what we do? And not just an email survey, but in person. Our client was uncomfortable, and so were many of their customers, but guess what – they learned enough about themselves to fill a library. And they cemented a lot of those customer relationships in a way they never could have otherwise.

Mistakes will happen. We’ll make bad choices, perform poorly, and behave badly as long as we keep getting out of bed in the morning. But we don’t have to make the same mistakes, and we can use the ones we make to help us get better. It’s the best we can do – and if we do it right, it can be great.

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