Embrace a mistake-making culture

Karen Natzel, The Daily Record Newswire

Business leaders have had to embrace rapid-fire changes, even to the point of reinventing their businesses, to stay relevant and viable in today’s economy. That frenetic pace can perpetuate a constant level of stress if a framework doesn’t exist for channeling it. That framework is cultivating the mindset of a “learning organization.”
In the words of Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline,” a learning organization is “… a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about.”

Learning organizations, according to businessdictionary.com, create a culture that encourages and supports continuous learning, critical thinking, and risk taking with new ideas. They embrace new concepts and ways of doing business like “lean construction” or “Integrated Project Delivery.” They allow mistakes, and value employee contributions; they learn from experiences and experimentation; and they disseminate the new knowledge throughout the organization.

Now, you may think you allow your team the freedom and autonomy to make mistakes, but take a deeper look. You may find that the culture not only does NOT foster mistake-making, but actually (unintentionally) discourages such behaviors.

Most business leaders repeatedly express their desire for people to take initiative, present creative solutions and be accountable. Those are admirable traits in any professional. Yet, for people to actively practice those attitudes and behaviors, organizations need a culture that rewards mistake-making.

Why? Because it takes courage to break away from group think to deliver creative solutions. It takes trust to know that if you fail in your bold initiative-taking, you won’t be shot down (ridiculed) for a “stupid idea” or met with the impatient rhetoric of, “we’ve tried that before.” It takes confidence to make a mistake in front of one’s peers, supervisors and direct reports. Learning requires taking risks, and in taking risks, a feeling of exposure. That kind of vulnerability can serve as the epicenter of innovation — igniting fresh ideas and approaches that inspire creativity, excellence and a sense of accomplishment.

Barriers to being a learning organization

There’s a reason why not all organizations are learning organizations. We live in such a fast-paced world that it has become the norm to react rather than plan and execute. We are constantly putting out fires and juggling priorities, so we find it difficult to step back and examine where learning could occur.

Organizations often evolve into “silo-ism;” they become fragmented by departments instead of connected through collaboration. In learning organizations, the focus is on “team learning” – the accumulation of individual learning so that staff grow more quickly and the capacity of problem-solving is improved. There’s more open dialogue and better access to and sharing of knowledge and expertise.

Organizations have built-in assumptions and memories that can also impede learning. Habitual patterns and default thinking create a false comfort zone. In creating a learning environment, you’ll need to replace confrontational attitudes and ego-driven agendas with an open culture that promotes inquiry and trust, according to T. O’Keefe at the Journal of European Industrial Training.

There’s also an underlying resistance to change and uncertainty. People are often unwilling to make mistakes for fear of looking foolish or feeling humiliated; or even fear of negative repercussions.

How to start making more mistakes

• Delegate. People need to know what parameters they have to make decisions and take action. How empowered are they? As your team expands its repertoire with new skills and responsibilities, its confidence and competence build. Learning becomes inherent in an organization when delegation is integrated into how it operates.

• Practice integrated learning. Bring the team together to share in lessons learned. Challenge each other to generate new ideas. Acknowledge and reward the team for taking initiative, being creative (even if the idea doesn’t stick) and walking a path of personal mastery.

• Provide leadership coaching; a confidential sounding board to build one’s emotional intelligence – the awareness and willingness to navigate the unknown. This is the sweet spot where learning takes hold.

• Create a clear, motivating, shared vision. Make learning a core value.

• Engage in regular, cross-departmental communications that generate knowledge sharing, raises trust and rewards new thinking.

• Be passionately curious. Learning is a mindset of inquisitiveness. Don’t be in such a hurry that you shut out the next great idea. Bring a thirst for knowledge; a hunger for exploring. Practice showing up in conversations, meetings, hallways, conference calls with the intent of learning something new.

Take the K Challenge:

When we are in a relaxed state of continual learning, we are more nimble and authentic. Our sense of curiosity and our desire for personal mastery fuel our growth. The synergistic rewards of shared, team learning (collaboration) strengthen the organization’s resilience. Collectively, this also serves to enhance an organization’s ability to be lean, to innovate, and to shorten its learning curve and response time to change!

How will you demonstrate an openness to learning? As leaders, be willing to show what you don’t know, be willing to receive contributions from other members of the team, and be willing not only to make mistakes — but actually value the art of mistake-making! If you’re not making mistakes, you are holding back the possibility of achieving a personal best.

Embrace the learning opportunities that could unlock a personal and organizational transformation.


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or karen@natzel.net.