Byron's Babbles

Errors In Leadership Coordinates

windows_bug6-100581894-primary-idgeLesson #21 entitled “It’s Only Two Degrees” in 52 Leadership Lessons: Timeless Stories For The Modern Leader by John Parker Stewart really drove home the fact that small errors can have big consequences. On the 28th of November 1979, Air New Zealand flight 901, crashed into Mt Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, instantly killing all 257 people on board. Antarctic overflights were a new and exciting breakthrough in airborne tourism. Interest in the Antarctic had been particularly strong in the scientific community since the late 1950s, but only a small number of privileged people had experienced the wonders of the icy south. At the heart of much of the eventual controversy surrounding the causes of the accident were changes made to the flight plan of TE901. The plan loaded into the aircraft’s flight management computer was not that on which the flight crew had been briefed 19 days earlier, but no one had told them. The flight plan was only two degrees different, but this two degrees made all the difference between crashing and not crashing. Because of the white snow covering all of the area, the 12,000 foot rise of the volcano was not noticed because of what is now called “sector whiteout.”img_2265

I believe in the importance of an organizational culture that supports effective and productive handling of errors. Let’s make sure and distinguish between error handling and failures. I do not want to confuse a culture that deals with errors with one that encourages failures – there is a difference. Unless your school, business, or organization is different than mine, every organization is confronted with errors. Let’s define errors as “[…] all those occasions in which a planned sequence of mental or physical activities fails to achieve its intended outcome, and when these failures cannot be attributed to the intervention of some change agency” (Reason, 1990, p. 9). Errors have a couple of possible implications. On the one hand, there is no doubt that errors can contribute to grave consequences — accidents like Air New Zealand flight 901. The other implication, most people readily agree, is that we can learn from errors.

As leaders, we should foster environments adopting a strategy that is able to take on the challenge of avoiding negative error consequences and learning by fostering positive error consequences simultaneously or in alignment. Error prevention aims at avoiding negative error consequences by avoiding the error altogether, the error management approach focuses on error consequences directly. It aims at avoidance of negative error consequences and the promotion of positive error consequences by means of early error detection, quick and effective correction, error analysis, and long term learning from errors.

Edmondson (1996) posited that the open climate characterized by a willingness to report and discuss errors, allows learning from errors, and thereby can affect team performance positively. Edmondson (1996) further asserted that these teams had a better error climate, which allowed them to talk about errors, which in turn increased detection and correction. Generally, errors are discussed only when the consequences are high or even disastrous, I believe that errors with small consequences should also be taken as chances to learn. We must create an environment where our teams are encouraged to take responsibility for their errors. What kind of culture for dealing with errors are you developing in your organization?

Edmondson, A. (1996). Learning from mistakes is easier said than done: Group and organizational influences on the detection and correction of human error. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 32, 1, 5-28.
Reason, J. (1990). Human error. Cambridge: University Press.

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