What is a learning organization you ask? HBR defines a learning organization as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” Essentially, this means that the organization can take new knowledge and apply it to a new way of working.
What is neat is that a common theme among SoapBox clients is their openness to learning and improvement. This is not surprising because by launching SoapBox, they open themselves up to their employees’ ideas and commit to taking action on those ideas.
Learning through Failure
Effectively dealing with and learning from a failed project is a hallmark characteristic of a learning organization. Julia Hanigsberg, VP Administration, and Finance at Ryerson University, shares her tips on owning your mistakes and turning them into opportunities for improvement.
About Ryerson University
Ryerson University is based in Toronto Canada and is well known for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Ryerson’s SoapBox gives the fifty thousand students a platform to share their ideas on how to improve the university experience. With nearly eight hundred ideas and over fifty-three thousand votes, Ryerson students are a very active SoapBox community.
Ideas range from quick fixes (think: a hedge that needs to be trimmed so that it does not block important signs) to major changes to the university experience (think: registering for courses or scheduling of exams). All university departments take part in responding to ideas and taking action on them to make Ryerson an even better academic experience.
Ryerson’s Learning Organization Moment
Inspired by Times Square in New York, Ryerson initiated an effort to resurface two main streets on campus. Unfortunately, the effort took longer than expected and ran over budget. As the failed project happened literally at the feet of students it was naturally a hot topic on SoapBox and other public forums. In response, Julia proactively addressed the issue, in part through an apology on her blog.
I thought it was remarkable how Julia handled the situation, which led me to ask her for tips around owning your mistakes and turning them into opportunities for improvement.
Lessons on Failure from Julia Hanigsberg
1. Own your mistakes and apologize when things go wrong
Accountability, transparency, and trust are important leadership qualities. This has to be true in good times as well as in bad. As soon as it becomes evident that there is a problem, it is important to own the issue and apologize so as to maintain the trust others have in you as a leader.
“It is critically important that we be trusted to do the work that we are given. And this is a case where we failed.”
2. Be explicit about what the lessons are, lest people take the wrong lessons from the experience
One of the great benefits of blogging, SoapBox, or other social media tools is that you can communicate lessons from certain experiences to a mass audience. This allows you to be explicit about what those lessons are. Otherwise people will misinterpret them and not gain anything from the failure experience.
3. Support your employees in difficult times
It is easy for leaders to tell their employees to try new things and forge ahead with riskier or more aggressive plans. The hard part is how you respond when things do not go as planned. Choosing to support your employees’ decisions over reprimanding them when projects fail is a critical element of maintaining an innovative culture.
4. Changing a culture takes time to shift
One experience is not enough to shift an organizational culture to be more accepting and comfortable with failure. Culture transformation takes time and happens as the result of multiple experiences.
5. You have to be open to taking the bad along with the good
Just because you have apologized and were transparent with your mistakes, does not mean that everyone will respond positively. Openness encourages both positive and the negative responses and as a leader you have to be ready to handle both.
“When you are more transparent you open yourself up for criticism and you have to be able to take it”
6. Keep learning from failure
Julia summed up our conversation perfectly by saying: “As long as you’re learning, as long as you’re getting better, you’re doing something right.”