In the last two postings, we discussed the fact that mistakes are inevitable during major change—essential to the learning process, and an inherent part of transition itself. We also distinguished failures (falling short of expectations without learning) from corrective experiences (missed goals that lead us to learn how to avoid or minimize the same error in the future).
There are clear patterns displayed by people who view missing the mark as a corrective experience versus a failure.
Corrective experiences occur when mistakes lead to learning and growth.
Here, the person:
Failures occur when mistakes lead to stagnation and atrophy.
Here, the person:
Model 3: The Learning Sequence
When this corrective experience pattern is intentionally replicated, it is referred to as the Learning Sequence. Here are some of the guidelines that foster its application.
Guidelines for the Learning Sequence
1. Recognize that a performance gap has taken place.
2. Acknowledge the negative implications of the gap and take responsibility.
3. Apologize to those affected for any adverse repercussions.
4. Identify causes and the appropriate healing or mitigating actions.
5. Apply the proper remedy to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
6. Share learnings so that others may benefit from your experience.
There are certainly benefits for individuals who apply the Learning Sequence:
When an organization incorporates the Learning Sequence (or some equivalent) into its cultural norms, additional leverage is possible.
In such an environment, people tend to do the following:
From a practitioner’s point of view, I have found the Learning Sequence to be well-received when introduced to leaders with a predisposition for seeing connections between missed expectations and professional growth. These executives see failures as mistakes that render no value (people miss the mark and do not learn from the incident), and corrective experiences as mistakes that enable people to experience important discernment and illumination.
If you view “corrective experiences” as a mindset that certain leaders might like to promote within their organizations, the Learning Sequence can put that way of thinking into play.
I’ll close this series with a caution: Don’t let the models you use to facilitate or understand the learning process become so rote that you fail to leverage their full potential. Take some time to review them and be sure you are applying their concepts or tenets by design and with forethought. It will benefit our profession and us as individual practitioners to keep learning about learning.
In this series, I’m encouraging you to review the models (concepts, approaches, and frameworks) that may have slipped into unconscious application over your years of practice. I’m also sharing a few learning-related models that have surfaced from observations in my practice. The model below is one that came to light for me as I watched people learn (or fail to learn) from their disappointments.
Model 2: Corrective Mistakes vs. Failure
In organizational transformation, clients must have lofty ambitions in order to break the gravitational pull of the status quo. However, aggressive aspirations make them risk falling short of their objectives. Many people, and even entire organizational cultures, assume they must choose between succeeding with goals that don’t challenge the current paradigm, or failing at groundbreaking—but nonetheless out-of-reach—intentions.
My experience is that clients who consistently succeed with change embrace an alternative path—they strive for goals beyond their current grasp, but include a way to capitalize on the unavoidable shortfalls that occur. These leaders think mistakes are not only inevitable but essential to the growth process—an inherent part of the journey itself. They try their best to accomplish all their change milestones and ultimate outcomes, while at the same time recognizing that mishaps and setbacks provide the learning necessary for success. They embrace the paradox that falling down is crucial to winning the race. This important attribute distinguishes them from those who desire transformation but never quite reach the goal line.
Mistakes Are Key to Success
The only way to succeed when seeking transformational goals is to reframe the notion of failure into “corrective” experiences:
I’m not trying to diminish the importance of reinforcing and recognizing successful performance, but I am highlighting the importance of using mistakes as catalysts for growth. Major change stretches the boundaries of what clients have done before. This creates a rich environment for errors, so it’s important that they see them as a valuable part of living on the edge of what’s possible. Corrective experiences are not only acceptable, they are vital to the spirit of inquiry needed to “push the envelope” during the stress of major change.
As odd as it sounds, falling behind on personal and organizational goals can’t simply be tolerated—it must be embraced by leadership as essential to successful implementation. In fact, sponsors should declare that if there aren’t enough errors and shortfalls, perhaps they haven’t raised the bar high enough, thereby making it possible for people to play it safe and not take enough risk.
However, not just any blunder will do. Leaders who consistently succeed with change don’t foster a “failure friendly” work environment. In fact, they usually have a very low tolerance for failing (mistakes without learning). They seem to have inexhaustible patience, however, for people who find a way to create corrective experiences out of missing their objectives and expectations.
Leaders of nimble organizations take a very strong, but paradoxical stance: “If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not pushing the edge enough. If you’re not learning from your mistakes, there’s not a seat for you on the bus.”
I have found that sharing this perspective (model) with leaders can be helpful in establishing the kind of learning environment needed for successful implementation. I’ve never gotten much traction with executives who punish all errors. However, for those who seek another path, but aren’t sure how to proceed, seeing how to make heroes out of people who learn from their mistakes is a welcome alternative.
Levels of Change and Learning
There many kinds and levels of change; each has a corresponding type and degree of learning. The learning that occurs during continuous improvement, for example, typically happens under predictable, stable conditions. A related, but different kind of learning takes place as major change unfolds; it happens during erratic, fluctuating circumstances. Both are important to organizational viability, but each requires a different perspective on learning.
The turbulence, disruption, and stress that accompany dramatic change mandate that many of the learning opportunities stem from missteps and disappointments. Mistakes prevail when navigating the uncharted waters of significant organizational change, and learning from them is essential to surviving.
Sponsors, agents, and targets make plenty of mistakes as they acquire the skills needed to perform their roles properly; the only question is whether they will learn from these experiences. A key to success is to increase the likelihood people receive a sufficient “learning return” from their mistake “investments.” Facing errors, blunders, and poor judgment is not a pleasant experience, but is fundamental to increasing change-related competence. If handled effectively, drawing positive implications from mistakes can create extremely beneficial results; our job as change facilitators is to foster this kind of learning environment as much as we can.
Enlightenment isn’t about knowledge you learn, it’s about knowledge you turn into. ~Deepak Chopra
In my opinion, learning is one of the indispensable bedrocks of our craft. I layer many concepts, tools, and techniques on top of this core element, but fostering learning—my own and my clients’—is at the heart of what I do.
Recently, though, I realized that I haven’t been paying enough attention to what I’ve “learned from learning.” This prompted me to go back and reexamine a variety of learning models that I’ve used over the years and ask myself to what extent I apply, by design and with forethought, the concepts or tenets from these frameworks. I didn’t merely ask, “Have the models influenced my thinking or impacted my actions?” but “Am I intentional and mindful about their application?” My answers varied from model to model—sometimes it was encouraging, but mostly it was sobering. After years of application, many of the models had seeped into my unconscious…they were definitely reflected in my work, but not because of any specific overt intention on my part.
You might say, “Don’t most professional change facilitators rely to some extent on their ‘unconscious competence’?” Yes, we all implant certain concepts and models deep into our thought processes and gradually lose awareness of when, how, or to what extent we incorporate them into our actions and recommendations. There are many positive implications that result from this, yet, as we all know, any asset overdone can become a liability. Learning frameworks, used without conscious intent, can result in sloppy application, for example.
Any learning is a good thing, but we get more value when we are mindful about leveraging our knowledge. I’m not suggesting we stop drawing on our unconscious competence, but I think we should pause occasionally to remind ourselves of what has become more intuitive, rather than deliberate, in our practice.
This blog series is about some of the learning models I’ve become more attentive to after inventorying all the ones that influence my work (at least those I can remember). Because the full list of concepts and frameworks I’ve used and found valuable in the last 36 years is beyond the scope of this blog, some paring down was necessary. At first, I was tempted to address only the “big ones”—learning models that most likely all of us have benefited from (ones developed by the likes of BF Skinner, Abraham Maslow, Howard Gardner, Chris Argyris, Gregory Bateson, Peter Senge, etc.). I decided against this, however, because, although I can honor these pioneers by listing them, I have little new light to shed on their remarkable insights. Instead, I decided to focus on three less-familiar models that surfaced for me as I observed highly successful clients and consultants.
I encourage you to think about the learning-related concepts, approaches, and frameworks that have stood out in your work. Also, please consider sharing what you find with colleagues so they can benefit from knowing what you have learned about learning.
Model One: Learning Harvest Predisposition
Attitude really matters when it comes to learning. I’ve observed three learning outcomes among people who face dramatic change. Each reflects a different set of attitudes and emotions about the cost/benefit from transformational experience.
People in these circumstances consider themselves fortunate to have profited from the discomfort and aggravation suffered, but overall wish the experience had never happened. They would still prefer for things to have stayed the way they were before the change. Because of this, even though people in these situations have achieved more because of the change than they otherwise would have, they often hold on to a great deal of cynicism, anger, and resentment long after the transition is complete.
People who grow from change typically carry little, if any, negative baggage from their difficult and costly ordeal. If injustices were done to them along the way, they forgive and/or move on with the rest of their lives. If they made mistakes, they don’t indulge in a lot of guilt or self-incrimination, because they believe they were making the best decision they could at the time. People who grow from their trials and tribulations tend to be more grateful than resentful about the price they paid to achieve what they ultimately accomplish. They often report that everything they have experienced in their life, both good and bad, was necessary for them to be prepared to achieve and embrace the rewards they eventually enjoyed.
This model has helped me recognize a person’s learning harvest predisposition as well as how to encourage him or her into a growth mindset instead of gain or recovery. Of course, some gain and recovery predispositions are too strong to overcome, but even in these instances, I have found it helpful to understand how people relate to their shifting circumstances when determining change-related interventions.
Next: The Learning Paradox