The worst mistake is the failure to learn

Last week we got honest, talking about when things go wrong. About being prepared for it, sharing and supporting each other when it does. And something else I wanted to share, is the need to learn, and grow.

The worst mistake is the failure to learn

‘Learning from your mistakes’ may seem like an overused, glib formula in today’s world, but in todays fast moving, risk averse world – do you take the time for reflection and learning?

Enough advice already!?

We all know there is an excess of information and well-meaning advice in the world, so making sense of it all, and then applying it is the trick. So while we are being honest, and to keep us honest, here are 16 tips you may wish to follow – to make you’re your learning from the lived experiences in your life.

  1. Use the loop

Progress in any field of life comes from feedback loops, whether it is evolution in nature, or in ourselves. Whether we are setting up a Start-Up, to win in sport, to work better, or to parent better. The quality of the feedback, and then the application of the learning is the key.

  1. Adopt ‘Black Box’ Thinking

In Matthew Syed’s brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking’, he studied how successful individuals and organisations deal with – and bounce back from – major setbacks, looking everywhere from the aviation industry and healthcare, to education and sport.

The Black Box Thinking theory is that, failure, if harnessed correctly, can provide the surest path to success. 

Syed looks at how various industries view mistakes, errors in judgment or performance and how they are, or as often the case, are not used as learning’s for future improvement

As an example Matthew looked at differing attitudes to failure between the aviation and healthcare industries. ‘In aviation, they learn every day,’ he states. Failure in healthcare, however, is stigmatised. Mistakes are erased in a culture of fear, blame and repercussions, as a result, the system stagnates. Syed found that in the US, preventable medical error in hospitals was the third-biggest cause of death –the equivalent of two 747s crashing daily! And it has been estimated that 12,000 deaths a year are preventable in NHS hospitals.

This is also an interesting example of availability bias in action. We hear all about a plane crash, but we don’t hear about these preventable deaths. So we assume that a plane crash as being much more likely than they really are.

So Mathew’s key point is – be open to mistakes, and, what you can learn from them!

  1. Use your growth mindset

Whilst there are challenging days when the motivation wanes, I think people like you and I have a growth mindset, a characteristic that is essential for working in events.

Carol Dweck famously studied this and distinguished between those with a growth or fixed mindset.

While everyone has a different appetite or sensitivity to feedback, and it differs depending on the situation, I think event people are usually seeking to improve, to progress.

I also think as an industry we need to be open to feedback. And we need to be.

Given the public nature of our work, we can’t hide from peoples opinions or expectations.

  1. Fail Fast

Facebook is famous for it’s ‘Move Fast and Break things’ mantra and ‘Fail Fast’ ethos, but while this is easy to say, it’s not easy to do.

Unless there is a really brave mindset, and you need an agreed understanding that this is an acceptable approach in your team. So it’s a good idea to have that chat, and agreement, so you can all go about breaking things with confidence.


  1. Fail quietly – and out of sight!

We don’t need to wait until the event day to fail! Remember that in the world’s of Sillicon Valley start-ups, they are testing and learning on a daily basis. While they do test and learn live with their customers, they are not waiting until after they have launched a product or feature on a public forum. We can do the same in events. We can build prototype, do feasibility work and readiness checks. It’s all part of Experience Design!

  1. Embrace the fear – it is natural

It’s normal to be fearful of mistakes. We are brought up to not make mistakes, and it is inherent to us an humans. Feeling fear is a natural survival technique, it’s kept up alive for millions of years – making sure we avoid danger. And unfortunately one of our greatest inherent fears is the fear of looking bad in front of other people. Our friends, colleagues, or the wider world. In fact, most of our decisions factor in whether or not we may fail, or be embarrassed if we do something. Our pride is a natural limiter if we don’t push against it.

  1. Be wary of the comparison

As an ally to our inherent fear of not measuring up in the eyes of others, there is a compounding effect in today’s world of comparison. The reference point, the benchmarks we have, are often taken from the ‘highlight’ reel of social media. We see the best of each individual, and we use that as a baseline comparison. So before you use this comparison in your feedback loop, just be aware of what you’re comparing with.

  1. Build a culture of acceptance

I think what all this is showing us, is that what is needed within a team, and an industry, is the acceptance that things will go wrong, and that we can (and should) use these mistakes to learn. As with the aviation industry, once that mindset and systems are in place, we can then we can address the mistakes, and avoid them the next time. And this then create a space for the best teams to emerge.


Google did a study and ‘trust’ was actually the key insight into a high performing team.
  1. AND a culture of accountability – the loop is the important part

While is is fine to say ‘its ok to fail’, that’s not a sustainable approach if it’s the only thing that happens! We need to make sure the learning loops are in place, so that the experiences are taken as learning’s, and then applied for progress.

‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots,’ Michael Jordan said in a famous Nike ad. ‘I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.’
  1. Get, and give, good feedback

Event mangers are constantly debriefing, asking we ‘how did it go?’ ‘Yes it went well, but…’ is a continual conversation and mindset. And, while our events world is not as life or death as the health or airline industries (although risk management must be a day to day focus in our industry), I do wonder if we have a greater fear of mistakes, of things going wrong, and we don’t unpack things enough.

We have very clear ‘data’ as Syed calls it, real time feedback on what’s working, and what hasn’t. Which is valuable data if you are opening minded and aware of it all.

There is often no glory in the debrief, but there will be gold

  1. Check the reality

We must also be conscious of our interpretation of feedback. What is said is often not what is heard. We all place our own narrative around situations; our biases label things differently to what they really are.

  1. Learn from the bad, and the good

We often assume feedback, appraisals and debriefs need to focus on the mistakes, but the learning’s also come from what was done well. Feedback should ultimately be a positive thing, as it is just as important to reflect on the good decision you made, so you make them again!

According to Syed’s book, 99.9 per cent of aviation mistakes don’t lead to accidents, but even those tiny near-miss events are big learning opportunities.’ The aviation rulebook is based on lessons learned from every incident, however small. Consequently, the accident rate for major carriers in 2014 was just one in every 8.3 million take-offs.

Put into a event context, that means not just looking for those 1 or few things that went wrong at the event, it’s every aspect of the planning and execution which was ‘sub-optimal’. Even small things can be significant and should always be seen as a learning opportunity.

  1. Don’t be to hard on yourself (or others)

I personally know this one is pretty hard to remember, especially in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, and the world is watching (or waiting). It may not seem like it at the time, but experiences are a gift for growth. Embrace them the best you can, and receive them well.

  1. It’s not just about you

I’ve written before about the moments in our careers where we realise the outcomes of our work are not just about what you do. We need to own it, be accountable, but also recognise the things we create are a sum of many parts.

Check your ego, as I said before we would be arrogant to think we control everything. Event professionals like you own it, which is great, just make that attitude work for you, not against you.

  1. But… sometimes we are wrong!

I know, hard to believe, but it’s possible you made an error, a mistake. So sometimes we just need to realise it, back down, quit, walk away, and start again.

  1. It’s all in your mind

Facing mistakes and seeing failure as an opportunity is a paradigm shift for many of us, and a threshold you need to keep crossing in your career, or in any pursuit, to really make a difference.

It’s scary sometimes, but very cool when you get there.

If you need some help with that, just let me know.

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andrew @ andrewoloughlin.com

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