The Critical Incident Technique in Learning and Development: Acknowledging Mistakes, pinpointing Best Practices and Learning from them

In a business, mistakes are frowned upon. Though they are a part of human life, companies and employees often undervalue them and see them as a hindrance to productivity. Mistakes become a stigma and sometimes, they are being hidden. Yet, gated by mistakes is a path of learning. One must first go through mistakes so that he can develop himself. To overcome this paradox, the Critical Incident Technique (CIT) can be the answer. It works with not only reflecting the mistakes but also revealing the best practices.

In their workplace, employees are required to be as effective as possible. One of the ways to achieve this is to minimize mistakes by systematically working on the task at hand. By many companies, this is seen as the way to go. By not allowing mistakes being made, the productivity of the employees can be increased. This becomes the shortest, easiest road to increased productivity, or so they thought.

This notion of ‘zero mistakes’ forces most of the employees to be complacent. As they are afraid of making mistake, they become trapped in a routine. They will not want to try doing things differently as they believe that their productivity is at stake. Why would they change their habit if they risk being warned by their boss due to not holding up to the standard? As the risk is higher than the possible reward, it is only logical to stay on the course. They become a creature of habit who is only longing for productivity. As they are scared of making mistakes, they will shut themselves from creativity and be stuck in a monotonous cycle.

Furthermore, making mistakes is a part of being human. Making mistakes (and learning from them) empowers humans to develop themselves[4]. On the other hand, in an environment where mistakes are seen as a disgrace and should be avoided at all costs, employees tend to hide their mistakes and not care about them at all. This creates a paradox in which companies want their employees to expand their skillsets but disregard the one element leading to growth. This is a fallacy needed to be addressed by every company wanting to grow their business.

While employees must try to strive for ‘zero mistakes’ in doing their tasks, it is important, for both companies and employees, to acknowledge mistakes as a chance to learn and advance. This means to capitalize on those mistakes and not sweep them under the rugs. As a mistake in business is rare – and it should be – when it happens, it should be scrutinized deliberately. On the other hand, a positive experience can also be evaluated to reveal best practices. For those, the critical incident technique can be one of the key elements.

The Critical Incident Technique: Unlocking Potential

The Critical Incident Technique is one of the reflection frameworks. It was first started by John Flanagan in 1954. In his seminal study, he found that by dissecting an incident while focusing on the participant’s behavior and action leading to an outcome, behaviors leading to the desired outcomes can be identified, learned, and internalized[2]. This study leads to the identification of best practices in many fields (e.g. health, education, military).

Incident itself is defined as actions and events impacting one’s life[3]. These actions and events can range from small to large-scale and from individual to the organizational level. Those can also be a positive or negative experience. When their processes and impacts on one’s life are extensively reflected through the CIT framework, a new perspective leading to new key takeaways can be discovered.

The CIT framework is aimed to elucidate decision-making processes and increase problem-solving skills[6]. Thus, in this framework the participants are asked to look back on a particular experience. After vividly remembering the experience, the participants describe and evaluate their experience. They reflect on it and what-if questions are asked in their reflection. They explore what they have done, what has gone right, and what can be improved. With this new knowledge, they will have the necessary tools if they are to find the same situation. This will also enhance the overall problem-solving skills of the participants.

By those notions, the CIT framework should play a key role in the growth of a company[5], especially for its employees. It bridges the gap between making mistakes and striving for ‘zero mistakes’. As the bridge, it allows the workers to face their mistakes head-on, exhaustively and systematically learn from those mistakes, and keep what they have learned for future use. With this, mistakes are not seen as a stigma anymore. Instead of repeatedly forgetting and falling into the same mistakes, the workers are encouraged to learn from their mistakes so that they can avoid the same mistakes in the future.

The Steps of the CIT Framework

With the goal of professional learning and development, L&D presents a unique opportunity for the CIT framework to be utilized. The CIT framework, as it stems from the employees’ experience, caters to the needs of both the individual employee and the company. Thus, this becomes one of the most effective techniques to be used by a company in either solving problems or pinpointing best practices.

The nature of the CIT framework, as stated by Flanagan, is flexible in which it intends to accommodate one’s specific situation[2]. Therefore, the steps discussed here are intended to be a loose guideline. It is important for trainers who are using this framework to adapt it to their situation.

According to Thomas Farrell, there are four parts in the CIT framework. Those are orientation, complication, evaluation, and result[1]. These four parts can be done through a questionnaire, narrative inquiry, interview, and/or group interview.

To start with, the trainees are asked to recall an experience that happened in their workplace. The experience itself can be broad or very specific. One specific example is as a cashier in a retail shop, the trainees are recalling the Black Friday experience in 2019. They can be asked to recall the positive, the negative, or both experiences separately. As reflection is retrospective, it is best to be done immediately after the experience ends. This will ensure a rich description of the experience.

After they imagine the condition vividly in their head, they write the orientation part. This includes where, when, who, and what. To make it more elaborated, this part can be divided into two sections. The first section asks the trainees to describe their experience externally, like their surroundings, the people they were talking to, and what they were working on. Then, the second section asks them to remember and note their feelings in that experience. Did they feel happy, sad, angry? This focuses more on the trainees’ internal processes. This part must be written as detailed as possible. It is important for the trainees to understand that they are not required to validate their feeling in this part. This part must be kept purely descriptive.

After writing the description of the situation vividly, the trainees write the complication part consisting of the main problem of the experience. They discuss the central cause which made their experience either a good or a bad one. What went right or wrong is explained here. This part answers the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the experience.

With a clear, refreshed memory of both their surroundings and themselves in that experience, the trainees start to evaluate their experience. During their reflection, they judge, weigh, and separate the good and bad. They look into their cognitive and emotional processes. They answer what went well and what can be better. The impact and significance of the particular experience to themselves will be revealed in this part.

To conclude their reflection using the CIT framework, the trainees are asked to come up with key takeaways from revisiting their memorable experiences. First, they detail the outcome of the experience, whether it was something that they desired or not. Then, they are asked what additional things that they could do in that situation. After that, they are asked what will they do if the same situation happens again. As the final question, they are asked to identify the possible outcomes from that experience in these two following circumstances: (1) if their behavior remains the same, or (2) if they change their behavior based on this reflection.

In the end, the CIT framework provides the methodology to extract experiences. It is up to the trainers to adapt the methodology to their situation. Furthermore, they need to contextualize those experiences so that they can be meaningful.


[1] Farrell, T. S. C. (2013). Critical incident analysis through narrative reflective practice: A case study. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research. 1(1), 79–89.

[2] Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51(4), 327-359.

[3] Hall, J. M., & Townsend, S. D. C. (2017). Using critical incidents and E-Portfolios to understand the emergent practice of Japanese student-teachers of English. Teaching and Teacher Education, 62, 1–9.

[4] Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from errors. Annual review of psychology, 68, 465-489.

[5] Serrat, O. (2017). The critical incident technique. In: O. Serrat (ed.), Knowledge Solutions: Tools, Methods, and Approaches to Drive Organizational Performance. Singapore, Springer, p. 1077-1083.

[6] Wijaya, A. R. T., & Kuswandono, P. (2019). Reflecting critical incident as a form of English teachers’ professional development: An Indonesian narrative inquiry research. IJEE (Indonesian Journal of English Education), 5(2), 101-118.