The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best of human nature, and at times the worst. One unintended outcome has been the constant finger-pointing, blaming, and criticism.
For some sections of society, the current lockdown hasn’t gone far enough and there must be tougher restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. Yet for some business owners, the threat to their company’s existence is more pressing and restrictions should be lifted to begin repairing the economy.
Social media is awash with discussion of the government’s failures and how other countries are doing a better job. This blame game is stirred up by the media who need to keep the debate raging to fuel their clickbait headlines.
This blog introduces an evidence-based approach to the situation. A crisis of some kind hits the UK every few years, but what can be learned from them?
Airlines vs Healthcare
In his book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed compares the contrasting ways that the airline industry and the healthcare sector have learned to deal with mistakes and errors of judgment.
Failure is serious in the airline industry. Every aircraft has an indestructible black box (it’s actually bright orange). When there is an accident, data from the black box and other sources is analysed to determine why the accident occurred and what can be learned.
After an accident, independent investigators will explore the wreckage and review the evidence. Any errors that are discovered are regarded as learning opportunities. The airline involved and the surviving pilots and crew are encouraged to cooperate. Crucially, the evidence produced is not admissible in any potential court case.
After the investigation concludes, a report is published and all airlines have a legal responsibility to implement the recommendations. Pilots are provided free access to the data, effectively supercharging the power of learning.
As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
With thorough investigations, the airline industry has created an astonishing safety record.
By contrast, the healthcare sector has a poor record of errors, omissions, and mistakes which cost lives.
A study published in the Journal of Patient Safety put the number of deaths associated with preventable harm at over 400,000 per year. Categories of avoidable harm include misdiagnoses, the dispensing of incorrect drugs, and surgery-related injuries.
This is equivalent to three jumbo jets falling out of the sky every day. In the United States, preventable medical errors in hospitals are the third biggest killer, third only to heart disease and cancer.
According to Syed, the healthcare sector is beset by a culture of mistrust, blame, and deferral to authority. Healthcare professionals enter medicine out of a profound sense of care and an impulse to help their patients. It is then perhaps understandable that it can be difficult for them to confront the truth that their own errors may cause harm.
Additionally, a multi-billion-dollar global legal industry has developed around clinical negligence. Medical malpractice ensures a culture of cover-ups and a continuing failure to learn from genuine human error. Try Googling ‘medical negligence claims’ to see the scope of the field (53.6m results).
Syed offers a reformist idea: the determinant of success in any field—whether sports, business, or life in general—is an avowal of failure and a willingness to engage with it. This is how we can learn, progress, and excel.
The same learning applies to financial services. Mistakes happen, some costing tens of thousands of pounds. These could be simple mistakes, such as investing in the wrong fund or delaying a sale by just a few days.
For some businesses, errors can be a rare occurrence. The crucial question is how does each business respond after the event? Do they express their frustration and disappointment to the team that the error cost a lot of money to fix, or that the client has had a poor experience?
Or is there a culture of blame? When such a culture is left unchecked, this could evolve into something closer to the healthcare sector. Meanwhile, accusations of blame can lead to cover-ups and an inability to improve.
Nobody in a client service team shows up to work with the intention of making a mistake. Everyone does their best in fast-moving and complex circumstances, and 99% of the time they get it right.
Of course, occasionally people get it wrong; they have bad days, lapses of judgment, or forget things. It is time to change how errors are handled.
The armed forces
The current crisis is a unique opportunity to learn. In the future, the only thing to be upset about is if you fail to learn from your mistakes. Perhaps take a leaf out of the armed forces’ book as they work in stressful conditions where split-second decisions can cost lives.
The forces have created a structured debriefing process which analyses what happened, why it happened, and how it could be done better. This process is called an After-Action Review.
Your business could create its own template and call it a Learning Enhancer (not an Error Review). Perhaps introduce a new system that involves the key team members as well as another who wasn’t involved, then go through a process of review, learning, and act on the findings. Sharing this with the rest of the team can then ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated.
The intention is to clarify that mistakes in themselves are OK and that everyone makes them. By analysing and working to resolve them, errors can be used to learn from each other, become stronger, and build a culture of growth, improvement, and avoidance of blame.
In his book Principles, hedge fund manager Ray Dalio explains the underpinning philosophy to his firm’s outstanding success, “Having a process which ensures problems are brought to the surface, and their root causes diagnosed, assures continual improvements occur.”
This approach should be embraced by every team, company, community, and nation. This is particularly crucial when experiencing challenges that have never been faced before. Let’s stop the accusations and finger-pointing and realise that we’re in this together and can emerge stronger.