Failing Forward: Making good mistakes and building resilience through business simulations

Article by Ken Thompson, 07 Aug 2018

Introduction

One of the things the aviation industry understands better than almost anyone else is that “right first time” is not a sustainable strategy for any venture. Thus airline flight simulators provide pilots with a realistic but safe environment for making mistakes [1]. This is why the safety record of civil aviation is so high with only 10 in 40 million flights ending in an fatal accident,  according to Hans Rosling in his recent book “Factfulness” [2].

Business Simulations can provide organizations with such a “safe environment for making mistakes”, thus allowing them to develop three critical skills in their leadership and management communities:

  1. The Ability to Recover from mistakes
  2. The Ability to Learn from mistakes
  3. The Ability to Forget mistakes 

1. Mistake Recovery 

One of the main judgements which a flying instructor must make is whether the trainee pilot can go “solo” is can they recover by themselves from their own mistakes. It would be nice if pilots did not make any mistakes but unfortunately this cannot be relied on. In fact, a pilot who never makes mistakes will never experience failure recovery either and is therefore not a safe pilot. 

In business if your leaders and managers are not making mistakes then they are probably living well within their comfort zones and under-performing as individuals. When I facilitate simulations I often tell teams that if they do not make at least a couple of big mistakes in the simulation, then they are really wasting the learning opportunity provided by the simulation. Just to be clear I don’t mean stupid mistakes due to lack of care or laziness where you make an assumption instead of checking something.

On the other hand, if your leaders are making a healthy number of mistakes, then they need to be skilled in “mistake recovery” and the safest place to learn this skill is within the forgiving environment of a business simulation.

2. Learning from Mistakes

In the classic book, Failing Forward [3] by John C. Maxwell, the author suggests two important principles about failure: 

  • You might not be responsible for your failures, but you can sure take responsibility for your success. 
  • Turn failure into knowledge and knowledge into success.

Mistakes are “gifts” because they show us where our knowledge is short or out of date or just plain wrong. An individual simulation can allow us to learn from our own mistakes – a well-facilitated team simulation can allow us to learn from our colleagues’ mistakes as well.

3. Resilience (Forgetting Mistakes)

Paradoxically, whilst we need to learn from our mistakes we need to be able to forget them too or our future performance will be stifled by the fear of repeating past mistakes. The ability to put mistakes behind you and move forward is the essence of Resilience a skill/mindset which is much sought in business today. 

When I facilitate business simulations there is nearly always one team who make a really bad decision right at the start of the simulation from which they are unable to fully recover. 

There are two responses by these teams: 

Blame the facilitator or the simulation or their colleagues and ask if they can start again 

OR 

Own the mistake, learn from it and try to move beyond it 

In my experience the teams who don’t own the mistake learn little from that mistake but the teams who own the mistake go away with very rich learning about mistakes and resilience – often more than other teams who performed the simulations without any major incidents.   

Conclusions

Business Simulations can provide organizations with a very effective mechanism to develop one of their most critical management skills – recovering from, learning from and getting over mistakes – in a safe environment.

FURTHER READING

1. What Business Simulation designers can learn from Aviation Flight Simulation

2. Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, by Hans Rosling, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2018 

3. Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, by John C. Maxwell,  published by Thomas Nelson, 2007

More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on leadership, collaborative working, high performing teams, change management, project management and business acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Managing Director of Business Simulations Ltd.

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