Excellence = Falling × Learning

Martin Doeswijk

Once a year you can find me on my snowboard in the Alps. Beforehand I worry about whether I am still up to it, but after the first descent and the first smooth bends I am already yearning for the first fresh deep snow and over the course of the week I try to push my limits a little with a jump from a ramp or a rail slide. Sometimes my overconfidence is punished with bruises. But the ecstasy of a successful jump or a successful board slide down a rail makes me want to have another go.  

Who hasn’t experienced this: the happiness of having twelve victory points in Colonists of Catan, scoring the winning goal or landing a much desired commission? Conversely, there’s the feeling of losing, because your strategy didn’t work, you missed the goal, or the contract was awarded to someone else. Then you have your work cut out for you. Trying out new strategies, endless training sessions to improve your technique, or trying to better understand the demands of the customer so that you can come out on top next time.

This is called Kaizen and it is how it works in the ideal world. We plan, implement, evaluate and try to use these lessons to perform better next time. Each and every day. Yet the reality is often different. I learn a lot from this, simply by taking a good look around me. Like the review of four years of government policy in a Dutch newspaper (NRC, 14 January 2017) written in view of the upcoming elections, showing that plans do not often go beyond the evaluation phase. The Kaizen is incomplete. The feeling is unsatisfactory. And more than ever before people are putting off choosing who to vote for. We will never learn like this.

360-degree feedback 

During this third week of the New Year I am in Veldhoven attending the Master in Business Learning course together with my fellow students. Part of the course involves 360-degree feedback from a considerable number of my colleagues. I felt apprehensive just before the results were handed out, like the moment before my first snowboard descent. Compliments make me feel good. If points for improvement come up (deltas in the jargon of Learn) I am initially annoyed: did X properly understand the question? But it soon becomes clear that this one sharp observation, or the exposure of a less attractive characteristic, is a real gift. It is the prelude to excellence

The training course has about 40 participants. Tauw employs more than 1,000. We are all eager to learn and we all aspire to excellence. Although we occasionally fall, our potential is immense. After all, the result of a fall multiplied by learning is excellence.

And this winter?

I am going cross-country skiing in Norway with my best friends at the end of February. I have rated this as a dull sport for years. But now I am looking forward to learning something new and I am eager to find out if I can keep upright on the skis, let alone if I can get the hang of the ‘diagonal stride’, ‘double pole’ or ‘herringbone technique’.

Obviously I am going to unwrap my feedback gifts: the courage to do new things, to show more creativity, to indicate more clearly my beliefs and my passions, and to involve my colleagues more in my plans.

And on 15 March, five days before the winter ends, I will vote. And when I make my choice I will pay extra attention to whether or not ‘my’ party has mastered the art of falling and learning.


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