Learning from Experience

At the Center for Positive Organizations we had a guest speaker.  Fred Keller is the CEO of Cascade Engineering.  It is a company that is recognized for its positive approach to business.  He shared many inspiring thoughts and stories.  There was one story that particularly stood out.

One of the unusual practices for which Cascade is known, is the fact that it successfully brings in people who are on the welfare rolls and turns them into productive employees.  This idea originated in a casual conversation.  He and another man talked and the other man agreed to champion the idea.  They brought in 12 people who were on welfare, but in a short time they were all gone.

There were many problems that made the idea impractical.  The man was ready to give up on the idea.  Fred Keller encouraged the man to “rethink” it.  He said, “We needed to discover how people on welfare feel and think, we needed to understand them and their culture so we could support them effectively.”  So the man kept trying.  They ended up going into the literature, talking with the people and working to understand the culture of poverty. They even created a poverty simulation for normal employees. Over time, the company learned how to do what it did not know how to do.

All through his talk I saw two themes, an inherent hunger to get better, and a sense of how to persist while learning from experience.  It struck me that this is the very essence of what I wrote about in my book, “Building the Bridge While You Walk on It.”  When we care passionately about an objective but do not know how to bring it about, we move forward into new territory and we learn as we act.  We learn from experiences, particularly our failures and new competencies emerge.  The keys are the hunger to get better and the ability to learn from experience.

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