Learning from one's mistakes

Instead of learning from their mistakes, new research suggests that managers prefer to bury their head in the sand and downplay their involvement in failures. Yet, there is plenty to learn from errors and organisations have a role to play in owning up.

by AIM

William Starbuck, international visiting fellow at the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) is co-author of the report, 'Organisational learning: A myth?'. He says: "The learning that should follow failure often does not happen, and when it does, it often teaches the wrong lessons. It seems that most organisations could benefit from paying more explicit attention to learning, whether it is taking place, and what lessons it is teaching, as well as to the processes they have created to make it happen."

The research highlights five lessons for organisations to get over internal politics and blame culture.

- Link the outcomes of projects with the personal reward of the people who manage them. Financial and reputational rewards can be strong motivators.
- Beware of labelling a venture as 'experiment'. It may imply that people do not need to get completely involved with the project because of its nature and allow them to dismiss failure as inevitable.
- Do not settle for excuses on the ground of idiosyncratic circumstances. Such explanations never come up after successes.
- Do not underestimate the cynicism of parties involved - people often think they can get away with it.
- Unlearning successes may be a prerequisite for learning from failures.

Managers failing to learn from failure
William H Starbuck and Philippe Baumard

Review by Emilie Filou

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