In Matthew Syed’s excellent book ‘Black Box Thinking’ the case is compellingly made for learning from mistakes or failure, often ones involving significant loss, as a cornerstone of personal, professional and societal learning. The example is given of the airline industry, from where the title for the book is taken, with its attitude to learning from accidents and near misses to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated and opportunities for error eliminated. No process or system is ever perfect and accidents still occur, however their incidence is significantly reduced by the mentality of the airline industry to want to understand what has gone wrong or could have gone wrong and to learn from it. There is an absence of blame culture in this sector which extends to the information shared in accident investigations being inadmissible in law.
The contrast is made with the medical and judicial systems, where among other things a combination of status, ego and vested interests of those at the top have for many years dramatically limited progress and contributed to an inertia that has been detrimental to both the medical and legal professions. At the heart of this has been the institutional reluctance to embrace new thinking, challenge accepted norms and to see failure as something other than a reflection on the integrity and capability of the individual.
In whatever walk of life, the benefit of being wrong is only felt down the line by those inclined to see failure as an opportunity to learn and to bring this learning to bear on future decision making, relationships and interactions. Organisations that can foster a constructive and open attitude towards learning from failure and change the way they do things will in the long run be more successful. The alternative? Doing the same thing, expecting a different outcome. Isn’t that a definition of insanity?