Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

23 May 2007


Clark @ 3:33 pm

In a conversation today the topic of mistakes came up, and it’s one I think we could talk about more (and I’ve done so in the past, I discover). It’s clear that innovating and improving requires experimentation (again, he who fails fastest, wins). Yet, you can’t celebrate mistakes, as it can send the wrong message.

I was reminded of a story I heard at the Creating a Learning Culture conference Marcia Conner was kind enough to invite me to. To reiterate the earlier post, a company celebrated not when the mistake was made, but when the lesson was learned. That’s stuck with me as a great idea that allows mistakes as part of an overall culture that says it’s ok to experiment, and we know you’ll fail occasionally, but learn from it. Piet Hein is quotable here:  “The road to wisdom? Well it’s simple to express: err and err and err again, but less and less and less.” Just don’t make the same mistake!

My interlocutor recalled his approach, saying to teams: “I don’t mind small mistakes”, and that makes a lot of sense. I used to tell my team that I didn’t mind bad news, but I hated surprises. I like his approach better. Big mistakes are a problem, small mistakes are an investment in the future.

I mentioned corporate cultures I’d seen (in seemingly successful companies) where you couldn’t talk about mistakes. He recited his experience where when a mistake was made, they’d fire someone, and think they’d solved the problem!

So, another quote: “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson”. Find out why the mistake was made, how not to make it again, and make sure everyone learns from it.


  1. Your thoughts on mistakes caught my eye. I learned something of a radical view on mistakes, which has informed my practice as an educator, from improv comedy. In improv, literally everything anyone says or does in a scene is an offer. If someone sneezes, shruggs, trips–anything–the other performers in the scene embrace it and work to build something with it. Just as improv is about making the ensemble look good, my work with teachers and students focuses on the ensemble (the class) as the unit that learns. With this formulation, there’s no such thing as mistakes (or, perhaps more accurately, everything is a mistake) because what matters is what the class (including the student who made the “mistake”) does next. Will they build with it to create more learning? Or will they laugh at it or otherwise get stuck, and create a less productive learning environment?

    Comment by Matthew Lundquist — 26 May 2007 @ 7:26 pm

  2. Excellent! Absolutely, mistakes are an opportunity to learn. Or not. It’s like Brown & Palincsar’s reciprocal teaching, where everyone uses the opportunity of a mistake to learn to catch it, and turn that ability on themselves so as to become self-improving learners. Great stuff.

    Comment by Clark — 27 May 2007 @ 9:22 am

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