Failing to learn from mistakes

In Newspapers don't learn from their mistakes, Umair Haque wrote:
It's the single biggest error firms make in times of crisis: repeating the past. When the world around you is undergoing discontinuous change, repeating yesterday's mistakes is the quickest path to decay and dissolution.
I doubt it's anyone's intention to "repeat yesterday's mistakes". I got to wondering what we are seeing, thinking and responding to whenever it appears to others we are failing to learn from prior mistakes. Here's what I came up with as I reflected on that question:
  • We are seeing ongoing successes and that's no mistake. We tell ourselves we cannot argue with results. We're thinking "it's not over until it's over". We're grateful that customers still show up and money is still coming in. The rivals have not put us out of business yet. We take pride in continuing to deliver a quality product as well as attract and retain our quality staff. As far as we can tell, we're still on a roll that has not come to a stop yet.
  • We thinking about getting the work out the door. There are meetings to attend, schedules to meet and tasks to get accomplished. The performance pressures we're facing are best met with our trusted binary thinking: "The work is done or it isn't; the approach worked or failed; the answer is right or wrong; the completion was on schedule or late". So long as we're getting the work done on time, we're convinced that we're right about what we're doing. Those that say we're wrong, mistaken or misguided don't share our inside perspective.
  • We're confident that we're doing what others expect of us. We're conforming with what we've always done. We're not letting those down who have relied on us before. We sticking with what has always given us our reputation, earned us respect and gotten us admired for our commitment. We're thinking "so long as we don't let people down, they won't let us down by abandoning us in any way".
  • We're convinced that it has to be this way. We know not to question which direction we're headed in because that would undermine the entire operation and others' morale. We steer clear of thinking we've been deluded, over-confident or reckless because that would stir up uncontrollable feelings of regret, guilt and depression. We stick with our defensive rationalizations and worn-out justifications that reliably convince us we're headed in the right direction.
Nowhere in our thinking are we asking questions or using another point of view. Our thought processes are self congratulatory like a positive feedback loop. More of the same calls for more of the same. We have no concept of how it could be a mistake to repeat the past. It's a success. It gets the work done. It avoids letting others down and it keeps morale up too. No wonder repeating the past is a runaway pattern without self restraint.


  1. Kia ora e Tom

    The first step in correcting a mistake is recognising that it is one.

    Catchya later

  2. Kia ora Hi! Ken
    You're so right about the need to perceive, admit or define the conduct/outcome as a mistake. This is easier said an done however. Last month a finished a wonderful book that explores why it's so psychologically difficult to recognize one's own mistakes: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts


  3. Kia ora Tom!

    Yes, I have met this point of view before, and I don't dispute it. I feel that it is a contributing factor to the recent revelations I've been reading about that declare that some learn more from successes than from mistakes.

    There is a factor of mind-set that I feel is prevalent here. It comes with the authoritative-point-of-view which in itself can tend to narrow the field of view of the owner - if it is permitted to.

    Creativity can feed off mistakes, and can do so splendidly. But it takes a genuinely curious mind to do this, otherwise it slips into the psychological comfort zone that is so common among authoritative 'experts'.

    Catchya later

  4. Kia ora Ken!
    I completely agree is takes a "genuinely curious mind" to learn from mistakes and failures. I suspect we are in that frame of mind when:
    -- we're expressing ourselves instead of pleasing others
    -- we're clearing up our own confusion instead of coming up with the "one right answer"
    -- we're changing our own minds (self-taught) instead of getting changed (told how to think)

    Thanks for the added thoughts!