Do great teams make more mistakes?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that learning leads to improved performance. Without continuous learning, organisations, leaders and managers risk being stuck with yesterday's methods and approaches as their better educated rivals show them a clean pair of heels.

by HBS Working Knowledge
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

But according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, the equation between learning and improved performance is more complex than it first appears. In an interview with Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge, she argues that there are in-built tensions between learning and performance that smart organisations must recognise and deal with. For example, an organisation that has just completed a learning initiative may see a drop in productivity, at least in the short term.

Edmondson describes how, while researching the relationship between teamwork and errors in hospitals, she came across an unexpected discovery. "The statistical results I obtained were the opposite of what I'd predicted," she says. "Well-led teams with good relationships were apparently making more mistakes; there was a significant correlation between teamwork and error rates. This presented a puzzle. Did better-led teams really make more mistakes? I simply did not think that could be accurate. Why else might better teams have higher error rates?"

Edmondson's conclusion was that well-led teams were not really making more mistakes than other teams; they were just reporting mistakes more. Teams built in a positive climate of openness are much more likely to report and discuss errors compared to teams with poor relationships and punitive leaders, she found. Since her initial study, Edmondson has conducted extensive research into how group dynamics affect a group's ability to learn, and what she identifies as the "debilitating effects of interpersonal fear on collective learning processes".

She says that the problematic relationship between learning and performance is two-fold. First, learning is messy. There are usually no instruction manuals and performance gains won't show up immediately. Even if we are learning the right things, there is a transition to go through. Edmondson says: "The two-finger typist who wants to learn to touch type will suffer a performance decrement when he makes the shift. The idea was to improve performance by learning a new skill, but in the short term, performance will be worse."

Second, learning processes by their nature involve facing failures directly. The presence of problems or mistakes won't imply high performance to people who are watching. The learning process increases the chances of mistakes being detected, which will not resemble most people's ideas of good performance. In this sense, learning and success are, in the short-term at least, at odds.

Edmondson says that different types of teams face different learning needs and challenges. A leadership team, for example, may face the need to make strategic decisions in a changing environment of possibilities, while a product development team has to understand customers' changing needs and find ways to serve them. Seen in this way, managers have two jobs. "One is to become great team leaders who encourage open discussion, trial and error, and the pursuit of new possibilities in the small groups they directly influence. The other is to work hard to build organisations conducive to extraordinary teamwork and learning behaviours throughout the organisation."

Source: Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
Review: Nick Loney

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