(Note: In a series of posts, now called readers choice, I’ll write about whatever people submit and vote for. If you dig this, let me know if the comments, and submit your ideas and votes).
The actual question submitted was:
How to create environments that encourage people to make mistakes and learn from them?
This is easy. It goes on every day in every decent classroom around the world.
What this question is really asking is how can the person in charge create an atmosphere where learning is rewarded. Nearly every manager or leader talks about this, but rarely is it true.
There are four things people get wrong that makes this seem harder than it is.
- The person in power defines the culture through their behavior. If the bossman fires people for making a small mistake, people will hide mistakes and obsess about avoiding them, making creativity and innovation unlikely. If the bossman instead sees failures as learning moments, and takes time to teach solutions, or asks the mistake maker what they learned and how it can be avoided next time, people will feel there is room for them to learn. Many people in power are not self-aware enough to see the gap between what they say, and what they do, despite the fact people respond only to the latter. Most managers are more punitive and risk-averse than they think they are.
- Everyone must understand the different kinds of mistakes. The word mistake is loaded. We’re taught to believe mistakes are bad, and people who make them are evil and horrible. But if you are asked to solve a challenging problem you won’t solve it on the first try. Or second. Or maybe even your 50th. Your first few attempts will naturally fail. This is a kind of mistake, or failure, but a necessary one, and one no customer will see. This is useful failure. It represents an opportunity to learn, or eliminate a reasonable possibility others would eventually try. The person in power has to communicate the difference between interesting or necessary mistakes, and useless ones, and their responses have to be appropriate (See How to learn from your mistakes).
- The person in power has to care about employees long term. If I expect to manage you for 30 years, I want you to learn. I want you to grow. I want you to be as potent as possible in the long run, and I’d be willing to make short term sacrifices to make that possible (Paying for training, for books, coaching you, pushing to get you interesting assignments with the VP, etc.) If I don’t expect you to work for me for long, or see zero potential for you, then I’d never be willing to make that sacrifice. I’d always think you were already at 100% of what you are capable of, and have ZERO new to learn. Part of what defines the culture around a leader is their answer to this question: how good do I think the people I manage can possibly be? And how much do I care about getting them there? If they behave with long term care, odds go up everyone will teach, and care for, each other as well.
- Everyone needs proper expectations. An easy question I ask as a consultant, when people tell me of a problem they’ve having with someone at work, is this: Have you talked to them about it? 60-70% of the time they say no. If you feel your boss doesn’t let you learn from your mistakes, it’s up to you to ask for more space, making the argument you’ll be more productive/smarter/creative or whatever he wants from you if he treats you differently. And promise to prove it. Perhaps you can negotiate for only certain tasks to be freer than others. But if you never give the feedback, or never explicitly state what you want, odds are slim you’ll ever get it. If your manager is unwilling to ever give you what you want, then accept it or move on.
If nothing else, remember back to the best learning experiences you had, in school or in work. What were those environments like, and what did the teachers or bosses do that others didn’t? Leave it the comments – I’d like to learn about them :)
- How to learn from your mistakes (which classifies different kinds in humorous detail)
- Does your work environment effect creativity? (Mostly No)
- How to survive a bad manager
- Chapter 7 of the Myths of Innovation is focused on culture and how great creative leaders create great cultures.