Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes…But Some Do

Matthew Syed on the power of embracing error

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After speaking with some of the world’s most innovative business leaders and organisations including Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, Genentech and Oxford University, Matthew Syed, author of Black Box Thinking, shares how we can turn failure into success – revealing some surprising truths along the way.

 

YOU CAN WIN ONCE BEING LUCK

But for consistent success, you must be capable of change. With all of the successful organisations I’ve studied, they always have one feature in common: the ability to harness mistakes and failures as part of a dynamic process of change.

 

PSYCHOLOGICALLY, WE CAN FIND IT VERY DIFFICULT TO LEARN FROM OUR MISTAKES

We much prefer to edit our mistakes out or pretend they were really successes. The stories we tell are simplifications of our lives and we skip over anything uncomfortable, because it can be very difficult to admit we’re not as smart as we like to think we are.

 

INNOVATION IS DRIVEN ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY BY A HEALTHY ATTITUDE TO FAILURE

There’s a story in my book about James Dyson, who created a revolutionary vacuum cleaner. He said to me, “People often think of me as a great icon of innovation, but I actually went through 5126 failed prototypes before creating the working dual-cycle cleaner.” That willingness to rapidly iterate, to work through failures, is essential to innovation.

 

MORE OFTEN, WE THINK OF THE WORLD IN WHAT I CALL A ‘BALLISTIC’ WAY

You have a target, you calculate the wind and rain, then you aim your rifle and because you’re so intelligent, the bullet hits the bullseye. Instead, you should have a precisionguided approach, because it’s what happens after the bullet leaves the nozzle that’s important. You need information about the things that you can’t always predict in advance – like how the wind is changing – so you can continually adapt the trajectory of the bullet, and hit what could be a moving target.

 

THE BEST IDEA ISN’T AS GOOD AS A BOLD IDEA

When people create new companies or have ideas, those who succeed are not necessarily those with the best ideas – but the ones who are very bold in the early stages of the company. It’s about trying to bring as much feedback into development phase and prototype development as possible. When you think of a company like Dropbox, they did this very well; their idea was to get a working prototype out early, so they could get feedback from end users in the early-adopter community, and then iterate that model as they grew.

 

LEARNING FAST FROM FAILURE IS A TRUE HALLMARK OF INNOVATION ACROSS THE BOARD

Henry Ford had two companies that went bust before he created the motor company that changed the world. There are many modern organisations that are very, very good at embracing a willingness to learn the lessons, and they have created structures that enable them to learn very fast from failure.

 

THE NEED AND DESIRE TO BLAME PEOPLE, THE NEED TO SCAPEGOAT AND VILIFY, TENDS TO BOLSTER CLOSED CULTURES

Great institutions are very good at taking the time to see what went wrong, and often they find that it wasn’t really human error as such to blame, but that the human error evolved from a deeper systemic issue. If you take the time to figure out what went wrong, it empowers people to speak up about mistakes without the fear of being clobbered.

 

THERE’S A CONCEPT CALLED MARGINAL GAINS…

…we could do with more of it in business. It’s all about a commitment to finding marginal improvements. You might get a one-percent improvement in lots of small areas, which can add up to an extraordinary amount. It has created a very successful cycling team in Britain, as they’ve made small improvements in aerodynamic flow, small improvements in diet, hygiene, and cadence; they all look small, but the cumulative effect is truly incredible

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