Recognizing Failure vs. Acts of Learning

Paul Hebert Employee Relations, Innovation, Leadership, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert, Performance

There are sentences you read sometimes that just push you back in your chair.  You know what I’m talking about.  You see just the right combination of words that convey a thought so profound you not only marvel at the intelligence behind it but the beauty of the simplicity.  Words that, even though scant in number, ignite a firestorm of thinking – lightning across your neurons.

That happened when I read a post about – wait for it – BP and their “gaffe in the gulf.”

The entire post by @cvharquail is fabulous.  But the real brilliance in the post is the headline.  The headline was so good I didn’t need to read the entire post.  The simple 11 word headline said everything contained in the next 1,093 words.

What were the words?

“BP’s Beyond Petroleum: Hypocrisy, or Caught in the Act of Learning?”

Actually it is only the last 6 that jumped out at me and made me stutter-step.

What a perfectly profound way of describing ALL growth – whether that be organizational as outlined in the Authentic Organizations post – or growth as individuals – or the growth of employees.

Caught in the Act of Learning

Learning looks a lot like failing most of the time.

Blackeyes I keep coming back to parenting when I think of managing.  In essence we are “managing” our children through the various life stages.  Part of that managing is allowing them to fail in order for them to learn.  Our goal is to make sure we don’t allow catastrophic failure – don’t allow our kids to make mistakes that are permanent and/or they can’t recover from.  I won’t go into detail – you know the ones I’m thinking of.

The picture at the right (click for bigger version) is my daughter at 23-months.  What you can’t see in the picture is she has two black-eyes – the result of “mistakes” made when learning how to walk.  We had a big bow window in our house and her hands and feet got out of synch a couple of times as she sashayed down the sill.  No one wants a kid to get hurt – and we did try to prevent the injuries – but in reality, as parents, we let our kids fall in order to allow them to learn bipedalism.  It’s what we need to do.

Managers Need to Learn To Discern

Most managers see failure as something to punish and reprimand – or at the very least, put a note in the file to bring up when the employee wants a ½-day off to go to a Phish concert.

But as a quality manager you need to know better.  You need to be trained to take a step back and look at failures in the context of learning.  Is it really a failure – something driven by malfeasance, spite, incompetence? Or did you really just catch someone in the act of learning?

Managers get paid to know the difference between true failure and acts of learning.

Think about it.