How to Learn From Your Mistakes
... And Put Those Lessons Into Practice
"A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again." – Roy H. Williams (1958-), U.S. author and marketing expert.
Think back to the last mistake that you made at work. Even if it was a minor one, like spilling coffee on a document seconds before you were due to present it, you'll likely have felt a rush of panic and then had the inconvenience of putting things right.
No one is immune to making mistakes – we are human, after all! But if we simply apologize and carry on as before, we're in danger of repeating the same errors.
When we don't learn from our mistakes, we inflict unnecessary stress on ourselves and on others, and we risk losing people's confidence and trust in us. In this article, we look at how to ensure that we take those lessons on board, and then use what we learn.
How to Stop Repeating Mistakes
Here are five steps to help you to learn from your mistakes, and to put what you discover into practice.
"Making a mistake" is not the same thing as "failing." A failure is the result of a wrong action, whereas a mistake usually is the wrong action. So, when you make a mistake, you can learn from it and fix it, whereas you can only learn from a failure.
1. Own Your Mistakes
You can't learn anything from a mistake until you admit that you've made it. So, take a deep breath and admit to yours, and then take ownership of it. Inform those who need to know, apologize, and tell them that you're working on a solution.
Saying "sorry" takes courage, but it's far better to come clean than to hide your error or, worse, to blame others for it. In the long run, people will remember your courage and integrity long after they've forgotten the original mistake.
If, however, they hear of it from another source, your reputation will suffer and you may not get another opportunity to learn.
2. Reframe the Error
How you view your mistakes determines the way that you react to them, and what you do next.
Chances are, you'll view your error in a purely negative light for as long as any initial shock and discomfort about it persists. But, if you can reframe your mistake as an opportunity to learn, you will motivate yourself to become more knowledgeable and resilient.
When you've acknowledged your mistake, think about what you could do to prevent it from happening again. For example, if you didn't follow a process properly, consider introducing a more robust checklist or a clearer process document.
Stop beating yourself up, pause for a moment to reflect, and start thinking about how you can gain from the situation.
Your mindset plays a significant role in how you view your mistakes and, importantly, in how you react to them.
If you have a "growth" mindset, you likely see mistakes as an opportunity to improve, and not as something that you are doomed to repeat because your mindset is "fixed" on the belief that you can't improve.
You can find out how to develop a growth mindset with our article, Dweck's Fixed and Growth Mindsets.
A learning opportunity is not the same as an excuse for careless behavior!
Rather, admitting to your mistakes and showing that you have learned from them can help others to understand that making mistakes is OK. That is, as long as you act intelligently, in good faith, and keep your risk-taking within agreed boundaries.
Model this approach to encourage your people to take responsible risks, and to be more creative.
3. Analyze Your Mistake
Next, you need to analyze your mistake honestly and objectively. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What was I trying to do?
- What went wrong?
- When did it go wrong?
- Why did it go wrong?
Our article, 5 Whys, describes a straightforward yet powerful tool for identifying the causes of simple or moderately difficult problems. To use it, start with the error and keep asking "Why?" until you get to the root cause.
For complex or more critical issues, a more in-depth tool, such as Causal Factor Charting, may be more appropriate.
Conducting this "postmortem" should reveal what led to the mistake, and highlight what needs to change in order to avoid a repeat.
4. Put Lessons Learned Into Practice
The danger at this stage is that work pressures force you back to your routine tasks and habitual behaviors. The lessons that you identified in Step 3 could languish, unfulfilled, as mere good intentions. In other words, learning lessons is one thing, but putting them into practice is quite another!
Chances are, acting on what you've learned will require the discipline and motivation to change your habits, or to change the way that your team works. Doing so will help you to avoid self-sabotage in the future, and will allow you to reap the rewards and benefits of implementing better work practices.
Here, you need to identify the skills, knowledge, resources, or tools that will keep you from repeating the error.
Do so with care, though, because "quick fixes" will likely lead to further mistakes. Any actions that you take to implement your learning need to be enduring, and something that you can commit to.
If your mistake was a minor or a personal one, personal goals and action plans will lay the groundwork for implementing the lessons you've learned. They can give you a timescale to work to, and a list of the tasks that you'll need to complete.
The specific tools that you use from there on will depend on the particular lessons that you need to put into practice.
For example, if you learned that a mistake occurred because of your forgetfulness, aides-mémoire or greater attention to detail could help. If you found that your organizational skills were below par, digital planners and spreadsheets would be useful.
Or, if you discovered that an error occurred because of a cross-cultural misunderstanding, your communication skills might need a polish.
If the mistake was more organizational than personal, you may need to implement your learning in a more far-reaching way. Writing clearer procedures, for example, could help to ensure that more gets done without mistakes.
Understanding Zenger and Folkman's 10 Fatal Leadership Flaws could help to tackle errors from the top. In fact, not learning from mistakes is one of the 10 flaws, and providing clear and specific feedback is one way to counter this flaw.
And, if you learned that your new product wasn't distinctive enough to be successful, you may need to revisit your whole strategy.
Learning from mistakes, and putting that learning into practice, involves change. If that change will impact other people, the ADKAR Change Management Model could help you to get them "on board" – and to keep them there.
Don't be afraid to ask colleagues or your manager for help if you're unsure which tactic or tool will be the most effective in preventing further mistakes.
Involving other people is a great way to make them feel invested – and it can be particularly important when mistakes are made at a team or organizational level. So, foster an environment where people feel comfortable about expressing their ideas.
5: Review Your Progress
You may have to try out several ways to put your learning into practice before you find one that successfully prevents you from repeating past errors. The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is a great tool for pinpointing the most effective solutions.
From there, monitor the efficacy of your chosen tactic by reviewing the number and nature of mistakes that do – or don't! – still get made. Asking someone to hold you accountable can help you to stay committed to your new course of action.
To err is human, and we don't have to punish ourselves for the mistakes that we make. They can be great opportunities to learn, and to develop on a personal, as well as an organizational, level. We just need to learn from them, and to put that learning into practice.
When you, or one of your team members, make a mistake:
- Own up to it. Don't play the "blame game." This is detrimental in the long run, and you'll lose the potential for learning.
- Reframe your mistake as an opportunity to learn and develop.
- Review what went wrong, to understand and learn from your mistake.
- Identify the skills, knowledge, resources, or tools that will keep you from repeating the error.
- Review your progress.
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