Guest blog by Dr. Chris Yapp
There are many sayings around the theme that “experience is a hard teacher.” I have heard many speeches in which people say something along the lines of, “we learn more from our failures than from our successes.” For obvious reasons, we tend not to put these on our LinkedIn profiles or resumes. Indeed, when a competitor or rival organisation messes up, we might indulge ourselves in schadenfreude.
Around 20 years ago, I was invited to be a speaker in the UK at the “Cock-up Club” (1). Four of us with established careers were invited to give a short presentation on the biggest mistake we had made in our careers (so far) and how we had resolved it to a group of young graduates and entrepreneurs. The (other) presentations were personal and delivered with humour and insight.
The discussions afterwards were both deep and engaging between the speakers and with the audience.
Afterwards, I spent a few hours with a group of colleagues discussing mistakes we had been involved with in our various roles, both directly and in projects we had a close interest in. What emerged has stayed with me ever since. For example, there were few cases where “no one saw it coming.” Many problems were spotted early on, and either ignored or wished away. The major problems seemed to relate to timing. Anyone with a background in IT will be aware of the “X will change everything” hype. It’s not that this claim is always wrong, but the assumption that it will happen in, say, 3-5 years. The current turbulence around blockchain and cryptocurrencies is an especially recent example.
For me, the takeaway lesson was this: there is a set of repeating errors across organisations, sectors and people that could comprise a useful checklist for a team to reflect on its course of action to look for blind spots and assumptions that deserve to be debated and incorporated into planning.
Let me illustrate one example: “Everyone will always need shoes”
On a surface level, this statement sounds reasonable. Now, imagine that centuries ago, a timber grower stated that “everyone will always want clogs.” The comforting fact that you could hand over your business to children and grandchildren in perpetuity would be a source of pride. From our perspective, we may laugh at the naivety…but hold on! If you see a statement in a proposal such as “Trade will always need currencies,” do you see that as a fact, do you see it as a challenge-able proposition? This is what I call the “prisoners of language” problem.
Another systemic problem is that people assume that they understand where we are today and project forward. Oftentimes, even the simplest error here can lead to a wide divergence – popularly known as the “butterfly effect.”
I have been using a slide deck for many years that has helped me to understand the repeating problems behind failures. I believe that there is a collection of these; they’re relatively simple but cover many strategic challenges. I don’t have the space in this short blog to explain them all. However, if this post interests you, I am happy to share the deck with those willing to provide feedback on their experience with it along with suggestions for improvement.
My model of these repeating errors covers the following:
- Not understanding today
- Prisoners of Language
- Unintended consequences
- Sources of Innovation
- Ask the wrong question/people?
If you want the slide deck, my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will end with this; for the cynical person, experience is the recognition of a mistake the second time you make it. We can do better than that. Let’s really learn from our mistakes to make a better future whatever we endeavour to achieve.
(1) The UK expression for something done badly or inefficiently (e.g., “we’ve made a total cock-up of it”).