By Tim Baxter, TCO Associate
Our schooling systems are the product of a society which took certainty and stability for granted. Young people grow up thinking that perfection, zero errors, is possible and that those who do not get full marks have something wrong with them. This form of mass imprinting creates the common held belief that at work we are paid to not make mistakes. How can this help companies achieve the holy trinity of innovation, initiative and creativity that almost every corporate website announces is part of its culture? It short, it cannot!
In today’s world of fast moving, complex and unpredictable change where clarity of direction has given way to ambiguity, perfection is a dangerous block to progress. What is needed is a move towards excellence – the best possible result in a specific situation. This shift in emphasis will require us to rethink how we learn not only in our education systems but also at work.
Someone who always strives for perfection does everything to avoid mistakes which also includes avoiding risk and playing safe. Learning is an uncomfortable business, it means going to the outer reaches of your comfort zone and dipping your toe in uncertainty. Mistakes will happen, it is a new context for you, but that is where and how the learning happens. No one has ever learned anything, rather than just improved on past skills, without making errors. Speaking, reading, writing, riding a bike all involved trial and error it is just that we have forgotten the process of learning and take the skill for granted.
Some people are naturally inclined to be risk adverse but everyone could benefit from developing a sense of which type of errors are useful and when experimentation should be encouraged. Carol Dweck has spent much of her professional life researching the implications of a fixed mindset approach (where someone avoids anything which might lead to mistakes in their performance) and a growth mindset (which regards mistakes as part of the learning process). Her work looks at children’s education but the premise holds true for adults. When a boss gives feedback to a colleague and praises the individual rather than the effort the person has put into the task they are reinforcing a fixed mindset approach. If this is scaled up to company culture then we have exactly the opposite of what is required to face the reality we operate in today. If we need agility then we need to learn both as people as as organisations. This means making mistakes. Isn’t it time that we collectively slip into something more uncomfortable?