Four elements to learn from mistakes

A short prologue to the following article

I usually use my train ride to read articles or blog posts. I hope to learn something new for my work. For example, how I could do something better or different. Unfortunately, most of the posts remain on a very abstract level, pointing out that this or that is significant in topic X. But I know this or that quite quickly, when I deal with the topic X and yet I don’t know how to translate it into my work.

This increasing frustration over (too) abstract recommendations for action was also one of the reasons why I went into more detail on the development of learning cultures in my dissertation. Even if learning culture and learning culture development have been written about and researched for decades, there are hardly any design principles that are prepared in such a way that they can be translated into other contexts.

After this foreword, I would now like to criticise myself in this article. This fits very well in this case, because it refers to the topic „failure culture“.

The four elements to learn from mistakes in an innovative way

A little over a year ago, I was asked if I could write about the subject of „failure culture“ for an employee newspaper in order to increase innovation. Since I was already intensively involved with learning culture at this time, I was of course happy to contribute. The quint essence of my contribution is summarized in the chart below:

failure culture.png

Four elements – so what?

These four elements recently came back into my hands when I was cleaning up my hard drive. And this concludes the circle to my short foreword. Because (I) asked (myself) critically: What does this mean for my practical work? How can I change my working environment in such a way that we learn from mistakes more effectively? Most of my readers will probably have asked themselves this question at the time. I still owe that answer to this day.

A step towards practical implementation

I would therefore like to go into the matter in more detail at this point. On the one hand, to make up for not doing so until now. On the other hand, to learn from my own mistake.  One possibility is to translate these elements into action-relevant design principles on three different levels.

-> Individual level

As an employee, I can incorporate these four elements into my behaviour. For example, I could regularly show my work to others and actively ask for feedback. I could establish a routine to reflect on my work on a regular basis – for example, in the evening on the train or during the week in a certain period of time, which I block with a recurring appointment. I could ask myself in uncertain situations:“what would I do if I wasn’t afraid?“ and build up my courage. Or I could remember past successes and thereby strengthen my (self-)confidence.

-> team level

As a manager, of course, I am not only an employee myself, but also have an important role for culture development. This means that I have to translate these elements not only into my own behaviour, but also into the behaviour of the team. I have presented a process model for the cultural development of teams in detail here. The most important thing will be that the team will come to an agreement on which behaviour is desirable in the team. The elements from above help you to find your way around, but they still have to be formulated and concretised in a team-specific way.

-> Organizational level

In organisations, it is then somewhat more complex and design principles quickly become too trivial when they are presented in a bulletpoint. However, this is mainly a warning comment and not an excuse for not being more specific.

A common approach in this context is to collect employees with a (validated) questionnaire. As with most employee surveys, however, it is difficult to derive concrete approaches for action from this. In addition, the respondents mainly refer to the team culture and thus little is known about what should be changed in the overall organisation.

Another approach is to focus on team development (see above). In order to learn something for the whole organisation, the teams can ask themselves the question: Which overarching conditions prevent us from learning „better“ from mistakes? These obstacles can then be reflected back to the appropriate place and thus enable an „evidence-based“ organisational development.

It is even more pragmatic if cultural developers or decision-makers create appropriate platforms within the organization to promote desirable behavior. Be it brown-bag lunches to get feedback. Design-thinking or scrum training and coaching to learn working methods in which learning from mistakes is inherently within the „process“. Or the construction respective conversion of the office spaces in order to have project areas that symbolically and practically promote such a culture (there are now such „labs“ in many large companies). This pragmatic approach seems a bit arbitrary, but there is less risk of getting lost in analyses and hence never changing the system.


By chance, the four elements of an „failure culture“ came back into my hands from above. Thereby, I realized that I did not fulfil a requirement I have of the texts I read myself. Namely, that I want to learn something from it for my (practical) work. That is why I have now tried to be more specific.

With this experience, however, I also know that there are probably many other articles from me, which I will also have to deepen and concretise in the future. So I’m not running out of topics for my blog at least.

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