Article Summary – Strategies for Learning from Failure

Notes from HBR Article Strategies for Learning from Failure

Failure isn’t a bad thing.

Learning from failure isn’t straightforward; it’s easy to fall into the blame game (the market wasn’t ready) or to be superficial (we didn’t follow procedures).

“Blameworthy.” A failure that can fully and accurately be attributed to an individual is rare. In many cases, circumstances contribute to a failure, not just an individual’s inattention or carelessness. Article provides a scale of “blameworthy-ness” from deliberate deviation to deliberate experimentation.

“Mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.”

Preventable failures are usually procedural – the checklist wasn’t followed.

Complexity failures often come about as a result of new interdependencies in complex work, or in the inherent uncertainty in doing something complex for the first time.

Intelligent failures are due to experiments and trial-and-error. Failures where learning was the goal of the activity.

Obvious goal: create an environment that embraces failure. “This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.”

“All organizations learn from failure through three essential activities: detection, analysis, and experimentation.”

Detection. It’s cultural. Leaders and managers must welcome the reporting of failures. Create venues for collecting the information. One example: hold “failure parties” where failures are openly shared and discussed.

Analysis. Key message here is to find root causes. Cognitive and Emotional challenges abound. Emotional: it can be painful to dig deep enough, but unless one digs beyond the superficial, real learning can’t happen. Cognitive: we tend to think we know the answer and then just find the data to support the answer.

Create cross-functional teams to analyze failures.

Experimentation. “The third critical activity for effective learning is strategically producing failures—in the right places, at the right times—through systematic experimentation.”

Don’t cheat your pilot run or beta test to succeed – make it realistic to maximize failure and learning.