“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

The first installment of this blog series defined terms relating to leadership and how negative outcomes within organizations can be avoided with good leadership and organizational learning.  In this installment, we will focus on learning from errors and how learning improves operational effectiveness.

Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals, and some plants and machines.  Some learning, like being stung by a bee, or being burnt by a hot stove, is immediate and built by a single event. However, much learning is generated from repeated experiences or exposure to information (like learning multiplication tables, state capitals, or negatively how to drive a car and text at the same time).  Learning is a lifelong endeavor driven by ongoing interactions with the environment.

There are various sorts of learning include:

  • Increase or decrease of a response to a stimulus due to repeated or prolonged exposure (habituation)
  • Increase of a response when two stimuli are linked together (classical/Pavlovian conditioning)
  • Increasing or decreasing a response due to reward or punishment of the response (operant conditioning).

Each of these learning processes can be the force behind learning regardless if the person is engaged in formalized education, play, or muddling through the vagaries of life.

Speaking of the Vagaries of Life

Error is universal because the vagaries in the world around us coupled with the imprecise nature of humans.  People are fallible, and even the best people make mistakes and no amount of coaching, training, or motivation can rescue us from fallibility.  If you have obtained your exalted position professionally or in life through being perfect, you should reach out to some friends and loved ones to establish just how many mistakes you have actually made along your path.

In the work place it is of paramount importance that we (especially the “we” that are managers) be aware of the human potential for errors and failing.  Unlike machines, which are precise, people are imprecise, and certain situations multiply this imprecision.  Humans tend to perform poorly in various conditions include:

  • Under high stress and time pressure
  • Within complex physical or administrative systems (which typically have concealed error provoking weaknesses in their design)
  • When incompatible management and leadership practices are exhibited (saying we respect work life balance but tracking employee arrival and departure times)
  • Where there are organizational weaknesses or completely lacking work processes and values

Mentally balanced people do not come to work with the intention of hurting themselves or others, or of causing egregious process errors. But these events happen and understanding which and how the above conditions contribute to a given error is the first step in learning.

Traditionally, improvement in human performance has resulted from corrective actions derived from an analysis of events and problem reports.  Exercises like root cause analysis and incident investigation are reactive methods used to identify “why” and react to what happened in the past.  This type of reactive learning is important for continuous improvement. However proactive approaches, such as role play and learning teams should also be used to anticipate how an event can be prevented before it ever occurs.   Proactive approaches are a more cost-effective means of preventing adverse events; an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

How Best to Learn?

Regardless if learning opportunities are identified through “proactive” simulation approaches or through analysis of on the job incidents, the people involved must not be or be made to feel blamed or at fault.  Instead those people should be engaged to help learn how the adverse outcome occurred and what processes, procedures, values and leadership structures should be changed or put in place to reduce the probability of reoccurrence.

Learning outcomes are better if participants have undivided attention to the subject matter at hand.  Activities where mobile phones or work computers are allowed into the room typically lead to poor outcomes.  Likewise, if those involved need to “catch up” on their “real work” after the learning event, they typically will have less than spectacular outcomes.

The brain does not store knowledge in pieces like spread sheets store data in discrete cells.  Information in the brain is stored in a web of interconnected pieces which are related to one another.  For example, when you misplace your keys you will likely recall or better yet revisit the places you were the last time you had them.  The firing of the neural networks in the brain as you revisit those locations will often make you recall the sequence of events that lead you to accidently throw your keys in the washing machine or leave them on the kitchen counter.  Likewise learning outcomes will be better when participants can use anchors for what “usually happens” to connect to unusual events.  Begin your learning events with discussions about how the work day usually starts, administrative processes, and the steps that lead up to the work that actually takes place.  This will often elicit a more detailed description of organizational processes and provide insights that will drive learning.

Learning retention is better if accompanied by strong emotions. This partly explains why humorous educators are more effective than those who are monotone.  Not to mention humor generally helps to keep people awake! Likewise, negative emotions (fear, anger, sadness) will enhance learning retention, but should be avoided in a learning environment, because negative emotions prevent rational thought and active engagement.

Have you ever tried to learn something new or novel only to give up due to frustration or despair? Then the next day the new thing is easy to do.  Learning involves not just absorption of knowledge and skills. There is also an incubation stage of learning where the mind subconsciously ruminates on new information and connects it to preexisting factual and process knowledge stored in the brain.  What was yesterday a frustratingly impossible task is today easy to manage.  When designing and delivering learning events make sure there is ample time between the learning sessions, so that those involved can reflect and build more connections between existing knowledge and the topic being explored.

If your organization is driving toward becoming a learning organization or you are trying to implement learning teams contact Expressworks.  We have consultants with experience in these areas who can help in your journey.

In this blog installment we have focused on learning from errors and how this will improve operational effectiveness. Installment three will focus on failure, the inherent human desire to avoid failure, and how to build the bravery and courage needed to try and learn new things.

This blog is the second installment of a blog series on Change Leadership:

  1. What is a Leader?
  2. Leadership: Better Outcomes Through Learning