First Step on the Road to Excellence: Facing Our Mistakes

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How corporations can transform a culture of blame.

Although no one ever likes to air their mistakes, it’s particularly painful in the workplace. Admitting to errors can be ego-bruising at best; managers and peers often see it as a sign of weakness—and, at worst, it could even put your job in jeopardy. Trying to save face, however, might be the worst mistake of all. Avoiding reality when you’ve gone off track deprives not only you, but your entire team of an opportunity for learning, communicating, and collaborating more successfully.

Organizations willing to openly face mistakes may be rare. Fortunately, we can look to one outstanding model for talking about our mistakes as a team, clearly, concisely, and without blame: the Israeli Air Force. Their down-to-earth approach to this process as a form of continuous learning can translate into any organizational culture, and, ultimately, replaceblame and judgment with accountability and transparency. That’s a goal well worth pursuing.

We’re Only Human

No matter how hard-working and dedicated we may be, human beings make mistakes.

That’s an inescapable truth. So what happens when someone makes a mistake in your organization? In many corporate cultures, the answer is secrecy and evasion. Erring employees want to avoid repercussions, including the anger of team members. Above all, they’re trying to hold onto their jobs. If you fire someone for making a mistake, no one will ever own up to a mistake again.

In a revved-up, intensive corporate culture, continuous learning often lands far down in the ranks of priorities. But you can’t achieve excellence without it. From that perspective, mistakes can be redefined as tools for learning. Imagine the value of learning from everything you do—mistakes and good choices alike—and using those lessons to improve and avoid making those same mistakes ever again. That mental switch can set your team on the road to excellence.

Dedicating the Time, Building a Process

In a business world starved for time, the greatest challenge is making time for self-learning and open communication among teams. This is where the Israeli Air Force shines as a practical model. The Air Force builds time into every day for teams to review their latest flights. Everyone participates in this high-priority daily debriefing, so team members can learn from their teammates’ errors as well as their own—which goes a long way toward making sure those mistakes won’t happen again.

Corporate teams can be trained to debrief in just a few minutes using a simple, focused process. Many people find that simplicity to be the most powerful aspect of the process.

But doing it effectively is, in fact, challenging for most people. It starts with understanding what part of the experience is most valuable to accomplishing their objectives. Then they must learn how to answer three key questions:

1. What happened? People like to tell stories, but here they need to adjust their mindset and learn to keep answers short and specific

2. Why did it happen? This is about accountability—what was your part in a complex situation?

3. How can you improve? Answers must be actionable, not general and vague. Very specifically, what needs to change, and how will you change it?

When debriefings are shared in meetings, team member speak only for themselves, and discuss only their individual roles in any situation. In the name of accountability, managers, co-workers, clients, and traffic jams are never mentioned.

Debriefing has always been part of the Israeli Air Force culture. Not so in business, where the process requires change—and change is difficult. That’s why forward-thinking start-ups work to instill this culture from their earliest stages, when they employ, say, 100 people. By the time they’ve grown to 2,000 employees, it will be a solid part of their corporate culture and much easier to implement across the organization.

Making It Work, Measuring Success

Each team can set its own metrics for measuring the success of self-learning and greater accountability and transparency (sales quotas or customer satisfaction surveys, for instance). In the big picture, organizations have reported dramatic improvements to team learning and personal learning, and decreases in repeatable mistakes. Employees become more comfortable talking about learning and mistakes in front of their peers and managers. And managers report receiving in-depth information that helps them improve their team’s performance.

Results vary from industry to industry, as well as from team to team, but one factor has consistently been found to be support successful results: executive managers who are open to change. A higher percentage of executive teams embrace the self-learning and accountability model (compared to middle management), because they see how the amount and quality of information help them make their teams better,

And we can turn to the Israeli Air Force for one final bit of validation: Their pilots meet the highest standards in half the average time required in other countries (250 hours versus an average 450 worldwide) and have cut the number of aircraft accidents by 95 percent since the 1980s. In short, the Israeli Air Force embodies a CEO’s dream, with quality, safety, and training integrated in one culture.

Changing a Culture Is Possible

Changing an organizational culture will never be easy. It’s our nature to drift back to what we’ve always done before. Even so, strong leadership, personal responsibility, and perseverance can make meaningful change happen and keep it alive, with no damaged egos or fear of consequences—and maybe no pain at all.

Ofir Paldi is CEO and founder of Shamaym, a company that enables organizations to constantly learn from their work; share lessons; and build a culture of excellence, accountability and transparency.