The culture and processes of learning from failure

Photo by Luc Galoppin

Joshua Gans writes in HBR.org:

The idea is that one innovator’s failure yields important information as to where to experiment next. That is, failure brings with it learning. Specifically, without information on failure, it is easy to believe that continued success is based on skill rather than luck. As game theorists Drew Fudenberg and David Levine showed, your false beliefs, left unchallenged, can be self-confirming. Of course, having more experiments, and failed experiments at that, will provide a necessary ingredient for that task. But it isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to learn about the failure and then learn from it … When it is the same person who fails and tries again, that path is easy. But it’s really very hard to learn from someone else’s experience of failure. Indeed, for all we know, we already have plenty of failure. We just haven’t learned enough from it.

Learning from failure, like learning in general, and especially in organizational settings is dependent on two factors:

1. Processes and habits – as Gans points out – of people don’t know about it, they can’t learn from it. although it seems like a waste of time in the present moment, stopping everything else to make sure everybody knows about failure will allow a team to reap benefits in the long fun. And as long as the team is already learning about the failure, it should also take active steps to learn from the failure. Setting out reflection time is just as important as passing the information around. The task of the system (and its manager) is to transform data and information into knowledge and wisdom in a way that allows intuition and practical wisdom to play out.

2. Culture – it is in vague lately to say that we are negatively biased towards failure. HBR have been focusing on this issue in the last few weeks. I guess it is true. But awareness in not enough. In order to change the attitude and behaviors of people and gain from the benefits of failure, there is a need to create a culture that embraces positive failures and leads then through a process of learning. This means focusing on the right norms and more importantly, maintaining them.

Is the culture in your team supportive of failure? What are the active steps you are taking in order to make failures into learning opportunities?

Elad

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