To Improve Learning, Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

Learning is a process, and sometimes that means getting things wrong. Author and professor Bradley Staats says that’s a good thing.

Bradley Staats

Making mistakes is a painful process, but it can also teach us something.

So believes Bradley Staats, associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and he has the research to back it up. Learning continuously is essential in today’s constantly changing workplace; however, according to Staats, learners are often their own greatest enemy when it comes to progress.

“The challenge, fundamentally, is that we’re often working against ourselves,” he said.

Staats’ new book, “Never Stop Learning,” offers ways to overcome bad learning habits, as well as advice on becoming a dynamic learner. It’s an important topic — in what Staats’ calls the learning economy, the most valuable employee is the one who learns the most.

Chief Learning Officer recently spoke with Staats about the learning economy, the positives of failure and lifelong learning.

CLO: What is the learning economy? How do learning leaders fit into it?

Staats: I think it’s really just a slight twist on where many of our heads are at already, in that we have shifted to a knowledge economy. When we look at today’s world the challenge is that what we know right now is not going to get us where we need to go. I love the Satya Nadella quote, the Microsoft CEO, saying “The learn-it-all is going to do better than the know-it-all.” It’s an appreciation that when we’re living in a world where the only constant is change, you have to prepare yourself. So, what does that mean? Well, it means we have to learn.

We see organizations appreciating that the last several years as they started to name chief learning officers. All of that pushes, in an exciting way, the CLO role into kind of a key one in organizations, but it also puts a lot of pressure on that person. When you move to the front, then you better be able to deliver, which means making sure not only you but [also] your broader organization is able to learn.

CLO: How can learning leaders help their learners seize the skills in your book, like embracing failure and playing to their strengths?

Staats: We don’t put learning front and center. We often view it as a secondary activity. I think part of the CLO’s role is making sure that individuals see the need to prioritize learning. One of the main goals of the book is awareness. Let’s understand some of these different elements that are extraordinarily hard.

Take the strengths and the weakness point. What does it really mean to play to strengths? It’s our inclination to kind of fill a gap and yet there are many of those gaps that just aren’t necessary to address and they end up being distracting. We wouldn’t do that in our product portfolio and yet we do it in our learning portfolio — focusing on irrelevant weaknesses.

Talking about the failure point, how do we make sure that we’re de-stigmatizing failure? “We had a good reason to try something, we worked it through, we went out and did it and it didn’t work this time. Here’s what we learned, here’s how we’re going to do better.” Rather than you’re yelling at somebody or they’re getting in trouble for it, you’re modeling that good behavior.

CLO: What are the most important lessons to take away from your book?

Staats: I think it would be a few things. We’ve talked a little bit already about failure, but really looking at one’s own organization and thinking about: What is our culture for taking risks?

I think another piece that is extraordinarily important is the idea of the process focus. Really understanding how we get from A to B. I think good learners do this naturally. By all means, we will have instincts that kind of take us in a certain direction, but overall we recognize that for things we’re doing repeatedly, it really is about the process. How we’re doing today is not where we have to stay.

I think another one that I’d highlight is the whole idea of asking questions. Am I going to be willing to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out?” We really need to be building out our processes to encourage people to ask questions and get things done. All of this is not to slow us down so much that no work gets done but, rather, to make sure that we’re moving in a thoughtful direction.

The last one I’d highlight is the point you brought up earlier about strengths and weaknesses. I think from an organizational standpoint, if we look at great companies that have been successful, they realize that they are good at some things, and they are going to continue to excel at that, and there are things that just aren’t that important. In the book, I use the example of Zara. They really created the fast fashion category. Zara has made a number of sacrifices, and it has been wildly successful. So Zara, if they were to look at their operations they wouldn’t say, well maybe we need to start producing with a long lead time. They know that’s not what their customers want.

I think we sometimes forget that when it comes to learning and development. We have this idea that we can and need to be good at everything. That’s just not possible, for almost all people. There’s certainly some activities within a job that we need to be good at and we need to recognize those. But we take that generalist view. I think from a learning standpoint, it’s quite clear in the research the value that comes from playing to our strengths.

CLO: What is the best part about failure?

Staats: I think that if we’re honest, the best part about failure is that we learned that something didn’t work. We can all look at our own careers and think about jobs we’ve had at some point that with the benefit of hindsight we could say, “Well, I wish I hadn’t done that job.” But we actually have learned something quite important. That’s a line of career to mark off the list, or that’s a person I don’t want to work with, or I’ve had two paths to try and path A is wrong so now I get to run after path B.

The good news, when we can build out that culture and approach it the right way, is that failure is progress. So Ed Catmull, who was in charge of Pixar and now Disney on the animation front, talks about how we have to change the mindset from thinking of failure as a mistake to recognizing that failure is just part of the process. It’s not that we just draw a straight line and we’re done, but that the loops are absolutely part of doing this well.

Individuals and organizations who really get failure recognize that if they’re not failing, if their failure rate is effectively zero, then not only are they not learning but they’re not pushing the boundaries far enough. Somebody else is going to be willing to try some more perhaps outrageous, perhaps just creative things that are going to set them up for success.

CLO: What does it mean to you to never stop learning?

Staats: In some ways “never stop learning” is an appreciation that at our core, all of us are curious. Sometimes we beat it out of ourselves. Sometimes our organizations beat it out of us as we get disengaged. Sometimes the challenge is we’re doing the wrong thing so we’re not playing to our strengths where we get to engage that curiosity. So never stop learning to me is not only kind of a mantra for our organizations of how we can be more successful but it’s a very personal one. I guess I’m an optimist in that I think that it’s all in us, and the role of a good leader is to unlock it and to bring it out.

Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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