Why don’t smart people learn from their mistakes

In an HBR article in 1991, Chris Ayrgis, described the basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.

Why is it so and what can we do about it?

The rest of this post is tanken directly from the “In Brief” section of the original article from HBR:

The Idea in Brief

Problem solving is an example of single-loop learning. You identify an error and apply a particular remedy to correct it. But genuine learning involves an extra step, in which you reflect on your assumptions and test the validity of your hypotheses. Achieving this double-loop learning is more than a matter of motivation—you have to reflect on the way you think.

Failure forces you to reflect on your assumptions and inferences. Which is why an organization’s smartest and most successful employees are often such poor learners: they haven’t had the opportunity for introspection that failure affords. So when they do fail—or merely underperform—they can be surprisingly defensive. Instead of critically examining their own behavior, they cast blame outward—on anyone or anything they can.

The Idea in Practice

People often profess to be open to critique and new learning, but their actions suggest a very different set of governing values or theories-in-use:

•   the desire to remain in unilateral control

•   the goal of maximizing “winning” while minimizing “losing”

•   the belief that negative feelings should be suppressed

•   the desire to appear as rational as possible.

Taken together, these values betray a profoundly defensive posture: a need to avoid embarrassment, threat, or feelings of vulnerability and incompetence. This closed-loop reasoning explains why the mere encouragement of open inquiry can be intimidating to some. And it’s especially relevant to the behavior of many of the most highly skilled and best-trained employees. Behind their high aspirations are an equally high fear of failure and a tendency to be ashamed when they don’t live up to their high standards. Consequently, they become brittle and despondent in situations in which they don’t excel immediately.

Fortunately, it is possible for individuals and organizations to develop more productive patterns of behavior. Two suggestions for how to make this happen:

1. Apply the same kind of “tough reasoning” you use to conduct strategic analysis. Collect the most objective data you can find. Make your inferences explicit and test them constantly. Submit your conclusions to the toughest tests of all: make sure they aren’t self-serving or impossible for others to verify.

2. Senior managers must model the desired changes first. When the leadership demonstrates its willingness to examine critically its own theories-in-use, changing them as indicated, everyone will find it easier to do the same.

Example: The CEO of an organizational-development firm created a case study to address real problems caused by the intense competition among his direct reports. In a paragraph, he described a meeting he intended to have with his subordinates. Then he wrote down what he planned to say, how he thought his subordinates would respond, as well any thoughts or feelings he thought he might have but not express for fear of derailing the conversation. Instead of actually holding the meeting, he analyzed the scenario he had developed with his direct reports. The result was an illuminating conversation in which the CEO and his subordinates were able to circumvent the closed-loop reasoning that had characterized so many prior discussions.

Hope it made you think – reason and act  differently.


Children Learn What They Live


What I learned – from dr. House

house-cartoonI don’t consider myself a TV-slave, but I have to admit I sometimes catch myself watching and very much enjoying TV-shows.

One of the shows I happen to watch from time to time is the critically acclaimed Fox series House, about Gregory House MD the a-social yet excellent doctor who often clashes with other doctors including his superiors. These clashes are primarily due to his controversial theories and insights and let’s face it – his lack of social skills.

Although I watch TV for mere relaxation and entertainment, I have found that my brain is somehow wired so that it is impossible for me NOT to analyse what goes on in a wider perspective.

Over the years, I have often thought it strange that great management consulting firms like McKinsey and BCG, employ doctors and then transform them into management consultants. Amond my friends I have several who are excellent doctors, but I have great difficulties seeing them as management consultants.

However, some time ago, while watching House, I was struck by doctors deriving an accurate diagnosis based on vague symptoms and lack of reliable information. I quickly related this process to my own field of work, and discussed it with my best friend (who happens to be a  doctor).

During our discussions we found that the fundamentals of being a good doctor is not that different from doing good management consulting work. They are both based on the same three fundamental principles

  • Get an accurate diagnosis (what disease could each symptom potentially indicate?)
  • Build a hypothesis based on structured thinking (which hypothesis/hypotheses do you believe are more probable?)
  • Apply scrutiny and subsequent testing trying to disprove or tighten the diagnosis (what circumstances would indicate that the hypothesis is wrong?)

Realizing this, I no longer wonder how a medical background can be a valuable for management consulting firms (“McKinsey style”) and what we can learn from doctors to become better professionals.

Now, maybe it is time business knowledge gives something back to the hospitals in terms of competence…


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