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Identify and Address the Root Causes of Mistakes using LEARN Framework - F03

Updated: Apr 4

To all those who have stumbled and found the courage to try again, this framework is for you!

A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.

B. F. Skinner, Psychologist, behaviorist, author, and social philosopher.


In a world where ‘flawless’ is often the goal, there’s a steadily growing public acknowledgment of the fact that reaching flawlessness isn’t without mistakes.

In this edition, you will learn

  1. Why it's okay to make mistakes?

  2. A framework to find the root cause of a mistake and address it

Why is it Okay to Make Mistakes?

In a culture that penalizes mistakes and instills fear of consequences, innovation often takes a back seat. Mistakes are typically seen as failures in our actions, approach, or thinking. Nobody likes to be associated with failure, but failure is an integral part of the journey towards success. Consider various aspects of your life, playing video games, giving presentations, gardening, Excel formulas, shopping, or even driving — mistakes have played a pivotal role in shaping your approach to improvement. Mistakes in our lives have shaped the version of ourselves today.

So, don’t avoid mistakes, embrace them, and learn from them as they upgrade you.

When you hesitate to voice an idea or suggestion because you fear the consequences of it not working out, it’s a clear sign of a lack of psychological safety. It’s an environment that not only hinders innovation but also curiosity and perseverance. If you can be the change agent to start or strengthen a culture of psychological safety, take the first step. It’ll be worth it!

Let’s come back to mistakes. As an exercise, think of someone you admire for their success. This person may be a sports figure, celebrity, family member, friend, or colleague. Now, ponder whether this individual was always successful. The truth is, that success is often preceded by a journey filled with learning experiences, including mistakes.

Michael Jordan famously said “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

There are a lot more popular examples but here’s what is common amongst all of them: mistakes were made BEFORE achieving success.

Learning from mistakes accumulates your proximity to success.

LEARN Framework for addressing mistakes

I want to introduce you to my LEARN Framework where we Learn and Evolve from Analyzing Root Negatives. It’s a structured approach to finding underlying root causes, building a remedial action plan to address them, and getting better. It’s not much different from the approach we take when you investigate a drop in a business KPI so you can improve it. I've only repurposed it to focus on human behavior.

It’s a framework that helps you answer these questions:

  1. What went wrong?

  2. What is the root cause?

  3. What must I do to not make that mistake again?

Prep work

If you are going to use it on yourself, skip to step 1.

If you are a people manager who wants to build a culture of psychological safety for the team, talk about how you want to build a habit of learning from mistakes and your intent to build a process that will aid in identifying the root cause, action plan to address it, coach your team to improve, and propel your team towards a culture of continuous improvement. It prepares your team for a change coming so you don’t encounter ‘Why are we doing this?’ or other variations of resistance in later stages. You must proactively eliminate the guesswork that might follow.

The end objective is increasing your (or your team’s) effectiveness.

Increase in effectiveness = increase in success.

Step 1: Define and acknowledge the mistake

A key principle that has always worked for me is this: “The first step to address a mistake is acknowledging that there was a mistake made”

Clearly define the mistake made and its impact on your task AND a bigger picture. This helps you understand the consequences of the mistake to recognize its significance and impact helps you understand if addressing it needs to be prioritized.

For instance, not knowing how to read a Power BI dashboard and demo it in a presentation may outweigh the importance of an email you forgot to send.

Separately, it's crucial that you make peace with the mistake and take ownership of it early.

Step 2: Find the root cause

We can't solve something if we don't know its root cause. It's essential to always understand the underlying reason for our inability to accomplish something. The classic '5 Whys' technique is your ally in an investigation, much like JARVIS is to Iron Man. This method involves repeatedly asking 'Why?' to uncover the root cause of an issue. It delves deep into cause-and-effect relationships, revealing the fundamental reasons behind a problem rather than merely addressing its symptoms.

If working with someone else, you’ve already set expectations earlier so when you probe, your team members know your intent and end objective. Your probing will not be considered an interrogation. You can always remind them that you want to identify the root cause of not being able to accomplish something, and you need their help discovering it.

For example: A campaign wasn't launched in time. Why did we miss the deadline? Not enough people on the project to get the work done. Why don't we have the headcount we need? Asked for it before the project kickoff 3 weeks ago and was denied by the Marketing Director. Why were we denied the headcount? There's another project with higher priority where 2 of our team members were reassigned. Why did you not flag the risk of not meeting a deadline?

Imagine yourself probing. Based on this conversation, what is your conclusion on the root cause?

A mistake about not flagging a risk and setting incorrect expectations it seems.

The root cause determined can either be controllable or uncontrollable by the task owner. In this example, it's a controllable root cause.

If it was uncontrollable, ask for help else you are at risk of making the same mistake again.

Step 3: Categorize root cause

When the root cause of the mistake is controllable by you, use only 2 categories. Skill or a will issue. Skill issue is competency-based and can be trained. Skills are not always tech skills but sometimes as simple as communication, planning, structured thinking, ability to say no, or intangible skills.

Will issue is where the will to complete a task is lacking. It leans towards an unwillingness to try.

Will issues are generally on the underlying beliefs of “I won’t do it” or “I don’t want to do it” whereas skill issues are on “I don't know how to do it”.

If your investigation has led you to the root cause being uncontrollable, i.e., you have dependencies and cannot address it yourself, ask for help.

Step 4: Create an action plan to address the mistake

Irrespective of skill or a will issue, brainstorm solutions to address it. If you are a leader, my recommendation is to think solo first and then go in to brainstorm with the person 1×1. For skill issues, there must be a training plan.

For will issues, probe to understand the root cause. It sometimes could be due to a personal compelling reason. For example, I was unproductive during the first 3 months of my son’s birth. I was tired, did the bare minimum and pretty much was a “I don’t want to do that” person. Importantly, I knew it was temporary, and kudos to my manager for proactively identifying it. Nevertheless, there was a need to have a conversation with my manager.

Be sensitive about probing will issues. They often are the results of frustrations over time where we don’t just see the benefit of trying again. It’s basically related to commitment. Will issues either lead to voluntary/involuntary attrition or abandonment of the task altogether.

Ensure your action plan is SMART (includes Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound plans). Following the action plan should address the root cause of the issue (skill or will) so the chances of the mistake repeating are minimized. Align with your team members on execution. It’s vital they understand how your action plan is positioned to help THEM improve.

If working on yourself, commit to the action plan. Write it, create a roadmap, put reminders, anything that you’ve used effectively before.

Step 5: Implement

Deploy the action plan. Never hurts to reiterate the action plan BEFORE a task/project begins. “Hey, a quick reminder about applying X (action plan) that we talked about so we avoid the Y (mistake) again”. If needed, go through the action plan again.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you get stuck anywhere. You got this!” has always helped me reiterate my confidence in my team members.

Step 6: Monitor

Don’t wait for the cycle to complete and then evaluate. Check in regularly. There are two possibilities at this stage. Your action plan works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, revisit step 2 and confirm if you identified the correct root cause OR if there are multiple root causes and you addressed just one.

Not to take you on a spiral but inability to identify a root cause is a mistake you can apply 5 Whys to yourself. 😃

Step 7: Celebrate and repeat

Don’t limit your celebration to “You did great” or “Excellent work”. Help your team member connect their accomplishment to a bigger picture, credit the execution, remind them that they have improved, celebrate the outcomes, and reiterate that the action plan works and they need to build a habit out of this action plan.

Wrap up

Remember, the key to success lies in consistent implementation and a genuine willingness to learn and adapt. By following the LEARN Framework, you'll be better equipped to address mistakes at their core, improve, accumulate wisdom, acquire new skills, build resilience, and grow.


Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback. You can either comment or reach out to me here.

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1 Comment

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Sep 08, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I recently read the article and I must say it was a truly enlightening and insightful read. Ani did an excellent job of breaking down the complex issue of mistakes and providing a practical framework, LEARN, to tackle them effectively.

The article is well-structured and easy to follow, making it accessible to a wide audience. The LEARN framework itself is a standout feature, offering a systematic approach to understanding and rectifying mistakes. The use of real-life examples and case studies added depth and relevance to the topic.

What I appreciate most about this article is its emphasis on addressing the root causes rather than just dealing with the symptoms of mistakes. This proactive approach can undoubtedly lead to more meaningful…

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