by: John Caddell

I've been reading the new book "Senior Leadership Teams: How to Make Them Great," by Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss and Richard Hackman. Very close to the end of the book I found a passage that is a better explanation of what's behind the Mistake Bank than anything I could write myself. While it's focused on senior leaders, I think the ideas work for anyone who has a job or owns a business. [I'll do a full review of the book next week. Sneak preview: it's very good.]

To learn continuously... requires that senior leaders move beyond well-practiced leadership habits and well-learned personal models of what makes for a great leadership team. What's needed is active experimentation with new and unfamiliar leadership strategies, and whenever there is experimentation expect that there will also be failure.. More often than not, trying out a new grip or swing in golf or tennis results in worsened performance for a while. But these experiments also generate learnings that cannot be had otherwise. The same is true for experimentation with leadership strategies and skills.

In fact, error and failure always provide more opportunities for learning than do success and achievement, because failures generate data that you can mine for insight into how you might improve your assumptions or your mental model of team leadership. Indeed, the bigger the failure, the greater the learning opportunity. To learn from failure requires that you ask questions that arouse anxiety (for example, about the validity of your deeply-held assumptions or about personal flaws in your diagnosis or execution abilities). Learning from failure also requires that you gather data that can help answer those questions and then adapt your mental models and your behavior. These activities are not natural or comfortable acts, and they are especially unnatural for successful people who have limited experience in learning how to learn from error and failure. (p. 204)

Copyright 2008 Harvard Business Press

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