Knowledge Bank Blog, Finding New Ideas

Learning From Mistakes

Are you learning and reapplying?

So near, yet so far.

England got closer to World Cup glory than they have for 28 years.  What could have been…?

But, let’s talk about what was.  An England team playing in the finals of a major competition with a clear game plan that they believed in and stuck to.  A game plan that got them to extra time in the semi final.

Why did so many previous England sides under achieve and this side over achieve?  There are lots of reasons, but we think they all come back to one underlying theme – learning from past mistakes.

Here is one example.  In the 1998 World Cup, Glenn Hoddle, the England manager, said “we don’t practise penalties”.  England went out on penalties.  In Euro 2004 Darius Vassell told Sven Goran Erikson (England manager at the time) “If it goes to penalties, I don’t want to take one.  I’m not prepared for it”.  What happened?  It went to penalties, Vassell was asked to take one and he missed.  England went out.

This time round, Gareth Southgate and his team learned.  They did psychological profiling of the players to see who was best equipped to handle the pressure of penalties.  They knew that certain things increase your chances of taking a penalty – like, taking your time after the referee blows the whistle.  They made substitutions to get key penalty takers on the pitch (Marcus Rashford in the Colombia game).

They practised penalties.  A lot.  And England won their first World Cup penalty shoot out.

Southgate and the team properly looked at what happened in the past.  They learned.  They applied that learning.

Why are we talking about this?  In our industry, just like many other industries, mistakes are made.  This is fine – making mistakes is an inevitable part of life.  In fact you could say it is an essential part of life.  Richard Branson said “You don’t learn to walk by following rules.  You learn by doing and falling over”.  There is only one way of avoiding mistakes – do nothing.  Which is probably not a recipe for success.

The bigger issue we often see is not that mistakes are made.  It is that mistakes are not learned from.  Not learning from them can have a multiplier effect.  They can multiply over time.  They can multiply across categories or brands in your portfolio.  But, if you learn from your mistakes that too has a multiplier effect.  It has a positive effect over time and across activities.

So, how can you learn from mistakes?

Before.  One way to start, is predicting the mistakes that might be made.  Conducting a ‘pre mortem’ is a way of doing this.  We all know what a post mortem is – an examination to establish cause of death.  Well, a pre mortem takes place for a living patient. It looks ahead and assumes the patient has died and asks what went wrong?  By doing this you identify the key factors that might cause their death.  Then this helps you identify the things you need to do to avoid that outcome.

This could be done on a lot of projects in our industry.  Let’s take NPD.  Start with the assumption that the NPD has failed.  Then as a project team, think about the key reasons that caused it to fail.  Was it the product itself?  Was it how it was communicated?  Was it visibility?  Then identify what you would do differently to avoid this issue.  Then build it into your plans.  Want to take it one step further?  Do a mini pre mortem with people who are not close to the project.  They will give you a more objective view and see things a project team may miss.

During.  This is about the ability to learn and adapt in real time.  Let’s take NPD again.  Most NPD launch plans are set in stone in advance.  The plan gets executed.  Then you hope it works.  But you probably only really know if it is working a couple of months later.  If it hasn’t worked it’s too late to change it.

Contrast that with the Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti) fast fashion model.  They produce less product to start with.  They soft launch it with multiple versions (e.g. the same T-Shirt in many different colours).  They quickly figure out what is selling.  They make less of the stuff that isn’t selling and more of the stuff that is selling.  This level of flexibility is easier for them – they own the process from factory to store.  But, even a small amount of flexibility in an FMCG launch process would allow you to influence things in real time – when it matters.

After.  Lots of companies carry out evaluations.  But, these evaluations are often a tick box exercise.  Fill in the template and move onto the next thing.  We think that the speed at which we move on is a big problem in our industry.  We move onto the next launch before we’ve properly reviewed and learned from this launch.

A proper review isn’t just about mistakes.  It is about good and bad.  Good = what worked really well?  What should we reapply next time?  What learning should we transfer (to other categories or brands)?  Bad = what are the things that didn’t work?  Why didn’t they work?  What do we need to do differently next time?  What learning should we transfer?

Making mistakes is OK – we all make them.  It’s not learning from them that is the problem.  You need to learn and reapply.

Southgate and his team will already be learning from Russia.

Which, of course, means that England will win in Qatar 2022, right?

We are taking a break over the summer to learn from all our mistakes.  We will be back at the start of September.  

If you can’t wait that long – here is our latest article for The Grocer magazine, published tomorrow… ‎

Have a great summer!