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Myths, Legends, Stuff We Need To Re-think

Learning from experience - be very careful, especially now.

For thousands of years, we have known that humans learn from experience. In the last hundred years, we have found out a lot more about the neuroscience behind this and why it is such an effective way to learn. If we want to learn to do something, we should definitely try to get stuck in and experience it.

There are though, many situations where this important principle is misapplied by people in organisational settings and where it can lead to dangerously wrong conclusions, inhibiting rather than supporting organisational learning.

Fundamentally because our own experience is, by definition, limited to what we have experienced.

Eh? Peter Senge explains it better in his amazing book The Fifth Discipline. Among other reasons for organisations failing to learn, he writes about ‘The delusion of learning from experience'. He explains that we often do not directly experience the consequences of important decisions that we make.

This is largely because the full impacts of big decisions can take years to become truly visible, so cycles and event horizons can be hard to see.

A strategy to restructure a workforce to meet an apparent, immediate need can lead to a long term erosion in performance, in areas that were never considered when the decisions were made.

It is tempting to apply our experience, to draw conclusions about why something has happened and make decisions based on what we think we have seen working in the 

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same situation. Organisational memory though, often needs to be much longer than the memories of the people making the decisions. Long term data needs to be interpreted against a background of what was happening when each part of it was collected, not what people have experienced recently.

More pertinently, we currently live in a world which no experience has prepared us for. The role of the people with the real data therefore becomes even more important. More important still, is our need for agility, awareness and a refusal to believe we know what will happen based on something we’ve seen before.

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