Learning from mistakes:
the London Fishbowl event write-up

by Ger Driesen
13 August 2018


hich mistake that you’ve ever made has felt like a catastrophic failure at the time but, upon reflection, was a huge learning opportunity? How has that updated your thinking since? That was the great question that panellist Jo Cook came up with to start the Fishbowl session in London. The event was organized again by Trent Rosen form PSK Performance who runs Fishbowl events on a regular basis ‘at home’ in Australia. The Dorchester Academy hosted the event in one of their fantastic meeting rooms.


Fishbowl event? Yes, let me explain the ‘recipe’ to you.

  1. Choose a topic you’d like to discuss.
  2. Invite people who are interested in the topic and might want to be part of the discussion. Between 20 and 30 participants is perfect.
  3. Be sure to have a large room.
  4. Put five chairs in the middle in a small circle.
  5. Invite four panellists, professionals who have an opinion and are willing to share it. We where lucky to have Jackie Barefield, Jo CookDonald Taylor and Nigel Paine assisted by Trent Rosen (Organizer) and myself.  
  6. Put them on four of the five chairs in the middle – this is now ‘the fishbowl’!
  7. Put a card on the fifth chair and call it ‘the hot seat’.
  8. Put out enough seats so that all the participants can sit in a larger circle around the fishbowl.
  9. Invite a moderator who asks the ‘right’ questions as conversation starters, facilitates a discussion, manages group dynamics and does some time-keeping
  10. The moderator invites participants to join the discussion by taking his or her place at the hot seat, trying to engage as much of the participants as possible.
  11. After discussing for 90 minutes, wrap up the session with the most important insights.
    That’s what it is, and that’s how it works!

Stigma, mistakes and language

So, the topic of this event was ‘removing the stigma of learning from mistakes’. Trent introduced the topic by presenting some ‘classic’ stories of mistakes or failures. Like the one from Edison who explained that he learned 9999 ways to not make a lightbulb and finally found one to make it. Or the WD40 lubricant spray that got its name because the 39 previous attempts to create the spray failed. Via some personal examples from the panellists, the first angle of exploring the topic was about the negative tone of the words ‘mistake’ and ‘failure’. Some nice suggestions popped up to use other words like ‘experiment’, ‘pilot’ and ‘iterations’ to take away the stigma and the culture of blame when it comes to how to handle mistakes and failure and how to learn from it. Participant Ronni brought in another perspective and suggested to not ‘beat around the bush’ when discussing failure or mistakes by clearly mentioning it as it is. That doesn’t include blaming and it keeps responsibilities clear. Taking personal responsibility for failures or mistakes is an important condition to move to learning.

Key takeaway:
Find the right language in your organisation or situation to get the most out of learning from mistakes. Try to avoid negative connotations while being clear about responsibilities.

Extracting, racoons and startups

Taking responsibility alone is not enough to learn from mistakes. As Nigel Paine stated very clearly, it needs an extra step, some extra effort of analysis and reflection to be able to extract the lessons learned from failures or mistakes. That led to a discussion on whether struggle is needed to really learn. Struggle can very well, and often will, lead to learning but is not necessary for learning. Or as the great Dutch philosopher (and football player) Johan Cruijff said: ‘every racoon has a tail but not every tail has a racoon’. Extracting learning from mistakes is more about taking time to reflect (also on struggle) than struggle itself. Startup CEO Simon explained how leadership and learning in startups are very much intertwined. Startups work on something that hasn’t been invented or done before so they have to ‘fail and learn’ their way forward. Organisational culture seems to be the buzzword in startup land. He asked if that spirit could be applied and become a culture (again) in larger organisations with a longtime legacy.

Key takeaway:
The important precondition to learning from mistakes and failures is to extract learning from it. This needs time to pause, review and reflect to make the learning explicit.

Aluminium, Toyota and discipline

To answer that question (with ‘yes’), some interesting examples were shared. Don Taylor spoke about about an aluminium provider where the new CEO announced that the wanted to be the safest aluminium provider in the world. At first, it seemed a disappointing ambition, but it really changed the corporate culture and seemed a kind of vehicle to create a disciplined culture where people take responsibilities for mistakes, report about them and apply analysis and reflection to learn from them. Lorna explained how this approach is also well-known because of Toyota and the Toyota way: the deeply ingrained culture to stop the production line when something is wrong; not to blame anyone but to start an analysis so the issue can be solved. Any worker knows that she or he can and should stop the production line if something is not right. Exemplary behaviour by the top management is very important but the behaviour of the middle management at ‘moments of truth’ is crucial. A culture of valuing learning from mistakes is about being clear and disciplined about it and sticking to that rule.

Key takeaway:
For a culture that supports learning from mistakes, top management behaviour is very important and middle management behaviour is crucial. It’s about discipline and sticking to the ‘learning from mistake’ rules.

Skin in the game

During the wrap-up round, the panellists gave their final reflections.

Time. Jackie Barefield shared insights on how the element of time can play a part in learning from mistakes. Sometimes, people need to ‘digest’ the mistake or failure, the consequences and their responsibilities before they are open to extracting the learning.
Courage. People need some courage to learn from mistakes. It is Don Taylor’s wish that as many people as possible have the courage to do so.
Questions. If you want to help people learn from mistakes via reflection, asking the right questions can be very helpful. The ‘five whys’ approach was mentioned as an Example. It involves asking five times ‘why’ to drill down to the core of a subject.
The audience is the most important set of people during the fishbowl session so the last reflection was for the audience. Rachel Orchard explained the importance of having ‘skin in the game’. If people have skin in the game, they are engaged in work in a way that success or failure affects them personally, which gives clarity around responsibilities and is a direct feedback mechanism, again crucial for learning.

So, referring back to you now, dear reader: what did you learn recently from a failure or mistake and how can you benefit from that in the future? Share it on Twitter (@gerdriesen) or below this LinkedIn post.


Ger Driesen

Ger Driesen, Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring
Think of connecting people, ideas and inspiration in the global L&D community and you’ve just created the perfect description of Ger Driesen. In his role as Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring he focuses on motivating and guiding professionals to build inspiring learning journeys. During his career he has had a variety of L&D roles, from consultant, trainer and facilitator, to L&D manager and entrepreneur. He’s also known as ‘the Dutch L&D trendcatcher’. Keep up with Ger on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Ger Driesen
Learning Innovation Leader