Stop Paving the Road to Hell

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In the hectic and ever-changing lives of nonprofit professionals, sometimes mistakes happen. Fortunately, so do successes! The goal, of course, is to make fewer mistakes and to have more successes. And though it’s unrealistic to think we can anticipate and prevent all mistakes before they happen, we can take steps to prevent them from being repeated. Somewhat similarly, we can’t guarantee success every time, but we can take steps to repeat them in the future.

Mistakes and successes both represent learning opportunities, and in a perfect world, whenever a mistake or success happens, the ideal course of action is to stop and address it right away. In reality, however, this hardly ever happens. We typically learn of mistakes too late to do anything about them, after we’ve already shifted our focus to some other project that requires our full attention.

The most common approach is to make a mental note about what happened and move on, having good intentions to apply what you’ve learned in the future. Hopefully, you recognize this as that place where repeated mistakes and the all-too-common question—”How’d we pull that off the last time?”—come from.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

Even though we often discover learning opportunities too late to do anything about them in the immediate timeframe, it’s still important to take full advantage of them for future work. Sometimes it’s obvious what happened and why, but often, learning from what happened requires a bit more time to identify the root cause. Assuming you take the time to identify the root cause, it takes even more time to document the results of what you’ve learned. All told, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours—or even days—depending on the complexity of the circumstances.

In most cases, though, you’re still not finished. You still need to put in place measures that leave you more than reasonably confident you or another member of your team (including those who haven’t yet joined) will never repeat the mistake, or will remember to do that thing that led to success. This step can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks.

Once that’s done, it’s probably safe to say you and your team have learned from the experience. The problem is, it has taken anywhere from a few minutes to several days or even weeks. Of course, in the real world, who has that much time to stop whatever they’re doing and take advantage of this type of learning opportunity? Obviously no one.

Learn Your Lessons Well

You have two choices. You can keep paving that road to hell, or you can proactively plan for learning opportunities.

First, create a system for capturing learning opportunities that requires as little effort as possible. Limit the time it takes to capture the opportunity to less than two minutes. An example: a name and simple description of the good or bad thing that happened. This way you can be sure to record what happened while it’s still fresh and with very little interruption to your ongoing work.

Note: If you would like to see an example of the method we use, contact us—we’re happy to share!

Next, book recurring time in your team’s annual calendar to review the captured opportunities, identify root causes, and determine new approaches going forward. If the root cause or new approach can’t be determined in a few minutes, assign the responsibility to a team member to complete within a given timeframe.

Assuming you don’t wait too long between these meetings, they can easily be completed in less than an hour, which is not a lot of time when compared to the potential cost of not learning from your experiences.

Stop paving the road to hell with good intentions, and start proactively learning from your experiences.


Image Credit: Andreas Levers