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Bob Sutton: "Failure Sucks But Instructs"


The quote above is courtesy of Stanford management professor Robert Sutton, writing on the incredible value of learning from mistakes.

Here's an important lesson about learning from failure, however. It doesn't mean that managers should gloss over the infraction with one of those, "Oh, we all make mistakes, don't worry about it" lines. And "forgive and forget" doesn't work either -- it leads to the same mistakes being repeated.

Sutton cites seminal research by Harvard Business School's Amy Edmondson, who demonstrated that the best learning organizations create an environment of psychological safety in which people feel secure in talking about their successes, failures, and misgivings, and are committed to improvement.

In a safe forum, errors are discussed openly, without anger or finger-pointing. Lessons are identified, debated and implemented.

So the most effective leader, Sutton argues, should forgive and remember.

"You forgive because it is impossible to run an organization without making mistakes, and pointing fingers and holding grudges creates a climate of fear," Sutton writes. "You remember -- and talk about the mistakes openly -- so people and the system can learn. And you also remember so that you'll notice if some people keep making the same mistakes, even after being taught how to avoid them. In that case, well, they need to be moved to another kind of job."
I think "failure sucks but instructs" is a perfect motto for the learning organization. It recognizes that failure hurts the organization, and feels even worse to those at fault. But since mistakes are going to happen, it's incumbent on the organization to learn from them.

Is forgive and remember part of your management toolkit when you address mistakes?

(Tilting truck image by floy', CC 2.0)