Stevenson Coaching Letter #37

Good evening, and thank you for all the responses to the last Coaching Letter; many were really moving, and I really appreciate your sharing.  And to answer some of the questions, why yes, I do have some more resources on the topic of failure.

The last Coaching Letter was about the relationship between individual failure and individual learning, but there is also a relationship between team failure and team learning.  I have written before about Amy Edmondson’s book Teaming (CL #31, for those of you keeping track), and that book has a great chapter about failure, and how it is totally central to increasing team performance because it accelerates team learning.  If you’re not failing, then you’re always just doing what you already know how to do, and there is no growth happening.  Failure is a necessary byproduct of learning, just as CO2 is a necessary byproduct of breathing.

Edmondson is co-author of a more technical article—I’m not trying to discourage you from reading the whole thing, but I’m bringing it to your attention because it makes the distinction between organizations that learn because they keep track of what they have learned, and organizations that actually have a learning agenda—they run experiments, test hypotheses, and chase down variation.  I’m attaching the 2×2 matrix from the article—it deserves more analysis than I can give it here.  Most places I know that aspire to being learning organizations have not thought this deeply about what exactly they mean by it.

Edmondson is also co-author of a very useful article on assessing whether you are part of a learning organization.  If you have any kind of leadership position, formal or informal, then I recommend that you spend not just with this article, but that you also follow the links to the assessment instrument and see whether it would be helpful to you and your team.  It definitely has a business focus, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find it useful.

The April 2011 Harvard  Business Review was The Failure Issue, and there are, obviously, several pertinent articles contained therein, including yet another excellent Edmondson article, “Strategies for Learning from Failure”.

Finally, in terms of articles about learning from failure, this is my all-time favorite: “Teaching Smart People how to Learn”.  The late Chris Argyris was a giant of a thinker about organizations, systems, and learning.  I learned a lot from assigning this article as one of the first readings in the UConn 092 program that I taught in.  When we talked about it, the participants in the program could totally relate to it, but focused on how it applied to other people they knew.  One of the fundamental tenets of coaching, and of human psychology, and behavioral economics, is that because of our inherent biases, we are always more insightful about other people than we are about ourselves.  Listening to the 092 students fail to connect this article to themselves made me start to preach about the benefits of failure and to be more intentional about preparing them for inevitable failure not as something to be avoided but something to be sought.  But it also made me wonder a lot about my own insight into myself, and my own blind spots.

I know this is dense and there’s more to unpack than you can possibly have time for, especially at this time of year.  Let me know if I can help in any way.  Best, Isobel

Edmondson & Moingeon 1998

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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