Experience … now there’s a word! By its definition it’s the natural teacher of us all. Experience means ‘personal knowledge, familiarity with and the actuality of learning from what we have done and practised’.

We all know that without the benefit of experience we would not be able to walk or talk, or do any of the practical things so necessary for living. It is through trial and error that we gain the understanding of the concepts of standing up on two legs. It is through trying and failing that we eventually learn the delicate art of balancing and moving that enables us to walk. Experience, it is said, is indeed the best teacher.

But it has its problems. Once we have learned to walk we forget the falling down, the tottering steps and only remember the ease of walking. The perseverance that drove us to get up off our nappies and try to find out what our legs are for fades into a memory. Experience allowed us to learn to walk, but then we forgot the lesson. Not the action …. just the lesson.

How many of us have said, after a costly mistake “Well that’s a lesson I’ve learned, put it down to experience!” and then promptly forgot the lesson. So while we are said to learn from experience we often don’t. You only have to think of the overwhelming urge to forget all past experiences when faced with the “Wet Paint” sign to realise that.

The other problem with experiential learning is that we honestly believe that others should learn from our experiences. Parents especially are prone to hope that, just this once, our children will learn to avoid making our mistakes and learn from our experience. But let’s be honest, they won’t. Most children or teenagers are just dying to make their own mistakes thank you, and they will learn their own lessons and foolishly hope that their children will have the good sense to learn from them. Some hope!

But I think the fatal flaw in this belief in the “action and consequence leads to learning” theory, is that sometimes the consequences of our actions are a long time coming. And by the time we are in the middle of the unpleasant consequences we have often forgotten the action that caused it. This is unfortunately true of many actions, choices or decisions made in business.

Whether we understand it or not, our approach to problem solving is often experience based. We will consider problems in light of what has worked for us in the past. If we insist on being the ‘head honcho’ in all things and rely on ourselves only, then we only have the experience of one person to depend on. Creating a problem-solving group enlarges the pool of experience and is therefore more able to solve complex problems. Perhaps we should call this “Group experience”.

The dilemma is that we do learn if the re-action to our action is immediate and within our parameters. If I put my hand on a hot BBQ plate, I have an immediate and personal feedback that it was not a pleasant experience, so I won’t do it again. But if I put into practice a procedure in my workplace which is designed to affect other parts of the organisation – and if those effects are not what I expected or planned, I may never understand the full consequences as they may not be personally experienced. Plus, if we add to that, the fact that some of the consequences of my action in 2001 may not start to show themselves until 2012, it makes the ‘learning by experience’ doubtful.

Organisations in today’s global market will need to understand that the critical decisions being made today have world wide impact, and the system-wide consequences can stretch over years or even decades. Choices about promotion, for instance, will affect the company’s strategy and culture for the next 10-20 years. Long term strategies are just that, decisions implemented today that will not come to fruition until some time in the future. Between now and then there will be many other decisions, choices and directional changes that will impact on the long term consequences. But within all this what chance do we have of learning from our experience. The possibility that organisations can learn from theirs is not good.

So if we are to believe that “Experience is the best teacher” then what is it that it teaches us? Perhaps it reminds us that the experiences that we have are an outcome of our choices, and that those choices will affect the things that we experience.

In short, our experiences can only teach us about ourselves. Maybe we need to understand that what we are, what we experience is an outcome of our action – and we are responsible not only for what we do, but also for what we learn from that.

So next time that you have a costly mistake and put it down to experience, perhaps experience will teach you that it is up to you to learn from it.

Michele @ Trischel

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