Is your organisation really smart?

I attended an interesting breakfast seminar at the consultants, Redington, last week about minimising mistakes. The starting point was that ‘stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes; smart people do; really smart people learn from other people’s mistakes’.  Two speakers, from KKR and 24 Asset Management, gave a short description of what they had done to make sure their organisations fell into the last category before a more general discussion. 


Some of it is fairly obvious, at least to those of us who have been around for 30+ years: it is largely cultural and has to be led from the top; owning up to mistakes should be encouraged, not penalised, so long as the knowledge gained is shared; senior people should go out of their way to give time to dissenting views and always speak last at meetings; diversity of decision-makers is good; careful analysis both beforehand and afterwards (was the decision a good one?) is helpful.


However, it is much easier said than done, particularly for younger organisations and staff.  The hard question came from the audience: if a junior employee makes a mistake which costs the business money, but owns up to it and shares the lessons learned with their colleagues, what do you do with their bonus?  Reduce it on the basis they made a mistake?  Leave it alone, on the basis that they behaved well?  Or increase it as a signal to encourage colleagues to learn from the mistake.


One shared conclusion was that the behemoths among us, whether civil service or investment bank, don’t usually fall into the very smart category.