Not only can people learn from errors, but errors are an important part of the innovation process. However errors can have significant costs and the fear of the negative aspects of error can lead to an exclusive focus on prevention policies. Recent research emphasises the need for companies to embed within their culture ways to reduce the negative consequences of errors and enhance the positive through effective error management.
Learning from errors is central to human development. Learning in a business context occurs best when there is a mind-set of acceptance of human error, and furthermore the experimental trials that lead to successful innovation, new processes and better performance necessarily entail errors on the way.
Due to the potential costs and negative, sometimes disastrous, effects of errors, organizations often focus entirely on error prevention as a strategy for dealing with errors. This can be a mistake as prevention needs to be supplemented by ‘error management’ – an approach directed at effectively dealing with errors after they have occurred, with the goal of minimizing negative and maximizing positive error consequences (examples of the latter being learning and innovation).
In their review Michael Frese, from NUS Business School, and Nina Keith, from Technische Universität Darmstadt, start by defining goal-directed ‘action errors’ as distinct from inefficiencies and violations, and review research on error-related processes affected by error management (error detection, damage control). They then consider empirical evidence on positive effects of error management in individuals and organizations, along with emotional, motivational, cognitive, and behavioural pathways of these effects.
Previous research undertaken by Michael Frese, and others, confirmed that a high organizational error management culture (one that included good practice in communicating about errors, detecting, analyzing, and correcting errors quickly), is pivotal to the reduction of negative and the promotion of positive error consequences and was positively related to company performance. In one study data from 65 Dutch organizations revealed that organizational error management culture was significantly correlated with both organizational goal achievement and economic performance. This finding was confirmed in a second study, using change of profitability data from 47 German organizations.
People do not like to be seen making errors, which are associated with poor performance and often a cause of shame. Organizations typically attempt to prevent errors from occurring in the first place by blocking erroneous actions. In contrast, the error management strategy starts after an error has occurred and attempts to reduce negative error impact through systems design and employee training. Error management involves controlling damage quickly, and reducing the occurrence of particular errors in the future, while at the same time optimizing the positive consequences of errors, such as long-term learning, performance, and innovation.
The error management process involves:
This research should encourage organizations to introduce error management strategies as a way to foster learning and innovation, and boost performance.
The research shows that error management training leads to learning and improved performance. To bolster the positive effectives and to ensure learning from error, controlling negative emotions after an error is important. Error management training can be used to help participants switch from a (self-) blaming mind-set to a learning-oriented mind-set.
Emotional processes associated with making errors can affect individual, teams and organizational performance. So organizations should foster an environment that accepts human errors and supports learning from errors.
Organizations should also develop an effective error management culture to improve their capacity for innovation. In doing so they should bear in mind that:
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