Forget About Getting it Right (Learn Instead)

baconSuccess: It’s not about the bacon; it’s about learning.

If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time trying to get things right. Problem is, things move so quickly today that it’s almost impossible to know what the right move is. So why not just give up on being right and focus on learning instead?

Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge intensive industries.”

It’s all about increasing your learning agility. This is a skill that you and your team can learn, and it’s based on three key practices:

  • Connection
  • Feedback
  • Responsibility

(If you want to skip ahead and take the short-cut to increasing your learning agility, click here to sign up for the 21st Century Leadership Skills workshop I’m leading in NYC next month.)


If learning from experience is the secret to improvement, then the first essential step is connecting with customers and colleagues so that you can actually get the full experience.

As humans, we connect at the emotional level. Facts can inform us, but feelings connect us. Not only is emotional intelligence — the ability to know and regulate your own emotional state, intuit others’ emotional states, and respond accordingly – one of the keys to success in business; it’s also how you deeply connect with others to hear what’s really going on.

I learned this the hard way when I was one of the leaders of a huge technology project at NBC. As we gathered input from various business groups, we kept hearing pleas to customize the tools or add features. We dutifully enhanced the system to address these requests, only to find users were still not interested.

If we had really listened, we would have heard that users were afraid of the new system: afraid they would not be able to learn it, afraid of leaving behind the inefficient old system they know so well, afraid of staff realignments and cuts stemming from the modernization.

We were hearing requests for technical fixes. We missed the deeper message and as a result, the system essentially died on the vine: $30 million and three years wasted.


Feedback is essential to improvement, and yet most of us will go to absurd lengths to avoid it.

One of my clients is a major resort company. They put on a lot of brunches, and they have a bunch of standard practices that help them get good food to the banquet table at the right time.

One recent Sunday the weather was worse than usual, and so instead of playing outside, guests decided to stay in and go to brunch. As a result, the chafing dish of bacon emptied out almost immediately.

It so happens that there is someone whose job it is to make sure there is enough bacon cooked. His usual practice is to cook six pans of bacon; usually that is more than enough. Not today. When told that he was out of bacon, the bacon chef said: “That can’t be. I cooked six pans. There should be plenty of bacon.” The rest of the conversation was an argument about the six pans not being enough. Meanwhile, the line at the bacon station was only getting longer.

Rather than taking the feedback and using it to adjust his actions, this particular bacon chef was more attached to defending his usual practice.

Agile learners put learning above defending. They don’t argue with reality; they find the fastest way to adjust to the new reality.


Usually when we are talking about responsibility, we are looking for who is to blame for something. But what if, instead of sticking someone else with responsibility for something we don’t like, we looked at how we can claim our own responsibility for creating the outcome we really want?

Like my friend Jack. He noticed that customers were routinely reversing the wiring on the solar inverters his company sold. The engineering team was frustrated because to them, it was obvious which way the wires should go. But experience showed a lot of customers were getting it backwards.

Instead of arguing about how wrong their customers were, Jack asked what his company could do to solve this problem once and for all. The answer: label the wires.

Dive in Deeper

Want to create your own personal plan for learning agility? Executive coach Meg Dennison and I will be leading a workshop on these building blocks for effective leadership in New York City April 27, 2016. 

You’ll get specific tools and strategies for solving your most important issues and upping your learning agility as you gather with other agile leaders in Manhattan 10am-3pm. Here’s the link to find out more. And here’s the link to sign up.

PHOTO: Nick Gray via Flickr

How to Turn a Miss into a Win


Good post on the Harvard Business Review site on how to tell someone you dropped the ball. It hits the important points like:

  • Communicate as soon as you see danger signs
  • Don’t avoid the people you are letting down
  • Be direct and own that you fell short of what you agreed to do
  • Work together to create a path forward
  • Avoid trouble in the first place by allowing yourself to say no to requests you aren’t all in for

All these are essential to maintaining trust and connection with people you may be letting down.

And there are a couple more essential ingredients that can take this to the next level:

Don’t leave out the emotions

Notice what you are feeling when you think about telling your colleague/customer/boss that you will not fulfill your agreement. Do you feel afraid? Angry? Sad? Give yourself permission to fully experience whatever you are feeling so that you can move through it. This will keep you from being run by those emotions going forward — like that desire to avoid facing people you feel you have let down. You might even want to express what you’re feeling to those folks you had the agreement with.

And give the other party to your agreement the chance to feel their emotions, too. You don’t have to “fix” what they are feeling, but creating space for them to express whatever anger, sadness or fear they are facing in the wake of your broken agreement will allow them to move beyond those feelings, too.

The benefit of noticing and expressing these emotions is that you can both stay in connection with each other, perhaps even feeling more connected in the wake of this upset.

What can you learn from this?

It’s one thing to fall short, acknowledge you broke your agreement, express and clean up any hurt feelings, and then move forward. But to take it to the next level, dig into the root causes and learn all you can from the incident. Did you agree too readily to the assignment because you feel insecure? Does this illustrate a pattern of overcommitting? Do you have a habit of running your schedule loosely so that competing events get in the way?

You’ve already paid the price by owning up to your broken agreement, so you might as well get the benefit of learning so you can make root changes and avoid similar problems in the future.

Emotional intelligence and learning agility are the big differentiators in successful leaders and teams, even (or especially) when they miss the target.

PHOTO: ThisParticularGreg via Flickr