The culture and processes of learning from failure

Photo by Luc Galoppin

Joshua Gans writes in

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?


The atmosphere of #feedback

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I got to teach a few classes about feedback and have always been fascinated with the subject and its personal as well as organizational consequences. I rarely encounter anything that truly makes me rethink my understanding of the concept. A few posts in the last few days have made do just that.

First, Bret L. Simmons, one of the best writers on organizational issues I have been following lately discussed the importance of trust in the feedback interchange because of the interpersonal risk involved:

I always seek feedback from the person that invited me to speak, but other than that, if Gary, Kathy, or another trusted friend did not attend my talk, I don’t ask anyone else what they thought about my presentation. It’s risky to tell people the truth about their performance; therefore, I won’t ask anyone that does not know me well enough to trust me to take that risk.

Next, Auren Hoffman from Summation blog wrote about how people are too afraid of rejection.

I would guess that people who take rejection well make much better employees.  They can take the appropriate level of risk and still feel good about themselves.  When interviewing, test this trait.

Finally, Peter Bregman writes about the pointlessness of arguing:

And that’s when it hit me: arguing was a waste of my time.

Not just in that situation with that police officer. I’m talking about arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time. It’s a guaranteed losing move.

Think about it. You and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what she’s saying but what you’re really doing is thinking about the weakness in her argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if she’s debunked a previous point, you’re thinking of new counter-arguments. Or, maybe, you’ve made it personal: it’s not just her argument that’s the problem. It’s her. And everyone who agrees with her.

When I teach feedback workshops I always talk about the importance of creating a shared purpose and atmosphere of trust in the beginning of the interaction (and sometimes, when things go astray, in the middle). After I read these posts and thought about it I realized I was not sure I have ever really stressed the importance of this point enough. Because I am not sure I really understood it to this level.

All of these wonderful thinkers point out to this exact issue. How hard it is to actually be in a state of learning and acceptance to other people. How important it is to create an atmosphere of trust between two people before you actually try to engage in the shared learning that is feedback.

And I ask you this – how are you going to make sure next time you are giving feedback that the two of you are actually in a place that will enable you to productively engage in mutual understanding and growth?


What are you doing about alpha-male type behavior?

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A few days ago the Research Digest Blog published a post called “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo” describing how negative behaviors like demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable were deterred in an oil rig by adopting collectivist goals (especially putting safety first), defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals and having a learning orientation towards work.

It surprises me every time to see that individuals in companies and societies adopt behaviors that are detrimental to the general good of the organization because of fear of consequences and humiliation. Bob Sutton in his latest post discusses this in the context of learning from mistakes, quoting from an article by Larry Prusak about the importance of being wrong and learning from it. Sutton emphasizes how he, as someone that writes about this subject on a regular basis, was amazed to reconsider his reaction to Alan Greenspan’s admission that he was wrong after the financial crisis after rethinking about it as part of the process of learning from failure. Instead of celebrating the fact that someone high up in our government admitted their mistake and tried to learn from them, most of the press devoted to this admission concentrated on the outcome of the mistakes that already happned. A missed opportunity to learn and develop for the future.

The oil rig study reminded me of a different study/story that I heard about on radiolab (and is also described by Sutton in his book and here). To make a long story short: scientists following a group of baboons discovered that the group, which was characterized by bulling and violence, completely changed its behavior after a disaster killed almost all of the alpha males in the group. The new males that arrived in the group did not start acting like bullies because they had no role models for this behavior. The culture that developed in the group was much safer, collectivistic and emphatic.

Besides the fact that these kinds of findings always reminds me that we need more women in key roles, it also says something about the approach managers should adopt to individualistic alpha male type behavior. If it is hiding information or bullying others it should be banned entirely. This means that managers should not only actively discourage such behaviors by calling it on the spot and by firing people who fail to stop demonstrating such behaviors but should supplement it with a supportive atmosphere for behaviors that are in the greater interests of the group.


Making learning a priority

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A few days ago Ron Ashkenas wrote on a post titled: Don’t Let Your Next Crisis Go to Waste. In it, Ashkenas claims that organizations should learn to harness the spirit and energy of a crisis to “normal” times:

The reality is that despite our best intentions, most people (and organizations) can’t sustain the energy of a crisis environment. If the challenges go on for too long they start to become routine. People who stay with it either get burnt out, cynical, or disheartened; and for those not involved on a day-to-day basis, the crisis fades into the background.

Ashkenas then goes on to suggest two steps that will allow organizations to harness the power of the crisis. One of them is post-crisis learning:

Organize a post-crisis learning clinic. Include the key people who were involved — from your team, other parts of your organization, and even outside parties. Take stock of what you learned: What was done differently? What new patterns or innovations were sparked by the crisis? And most importantly, what new ways of working — individually or collectively — should be continued?

While I am all for de-briefing, learning from mistakes and constantly questioning assumptions and practices, I find the argument a bit contradictory. If, as Ashkenas claims, post crisis, energy levels go down, how organizing “a post-crisis learning clinic” is supposed to leverage the energy and spirit created by the crisis?

I an interesting study, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson or Harvard Business School, studied how medical teams in hospital adapted to a new system for conducting surgeries. One of the conclusions of this study, is that learning was much more effective in real-time than post-hoc. When the surgical team emerged themselves in a process of learning during the actual surgery, they were able to learn and improve for the next surgery more effectively than by doing a post-surgery learning clinic.

Crisis is the hardest time to focus on learning, improving and thinking about the future. But it turns out this is the best time to do it. Like all issues of strategy, becoming a learning and improving organization is about prioritizing. The hardest time to engage in learning – during the crisis – is the most effective time. It means you, as a manager, need to make some tough choices. If you ask me, improving the learning capabilities of your team or organizations is, in the long-run, much more important than the current crisis.



Environment of learning

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A couple of days ago, the Freaknomoics blog wrote about TED quoting Anya Kamenetz saying that:

TED is in the process of creating something brand new. I would go so far as to argue that it’s creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.

More interesting was the quote by college professor and TED-lecturer, Barry Schwartz:

Well, people who come to TED are open to being changed by their interactions and conversations. They’re in an environment where they’re going to learn something new every five minutes. You could create something like that on a college campus, but generally that doesn’t happen.

As lately I have been grappling with the issue of learning behaviors and how you encourage them in team settings in order to support innovation, I find this comment fascinating. The answer to the question of how you create an environment where people are receptive and actually expect to learn is a million dollar question for organizations that are focused on radical innovation as part of their strategy. And frankly, that is true for most companies today.

Work used to be a place where you come in, punch your card, don’t ask questions and do what you already know. The more time passes, the more the jobs that answer this description disappear. Instead, we have jobs where you have to constantly learn and more importantly, be open to other disciplines, perspectives and assumptions about how to do things. But when you come with the attitude of the former to a workplace that employees the later, bad things are going to happen. Thus, companies need to find ways to create the “Magic of TED” in their own back yard and to make people ready to be changed by their interactions and conversations. Not an easy task. How do you think companies can accomplish this challenge?



Theory or practice? How about theory and practice?

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Kurt Lewin once said:

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

A number of good friends sent me a link to the Schumpeter column on the economist titled “A post-crisis case study: The new dean of Harvard Business School promises “radical innovation.  As my friends point out (Thanks KO and Kelechi), the most interesting part of this column is actually the comments which are filled with cynicism about MBA in general and Harvard MBA in particular. As a recent MBA graduate, I share some of the sentiments and I have my own view of what business education ought to be like and how it can be improved. However, I noticed something else in the comments that made me flinch a little. Here is part of a comment by Philip OCarroll:

Case studies teach you exactly the opposite of what you need to know.

Case studies are always written like fairytales. The author has a moral in mind when one is written and he uses the case study to instill the moral into the readers. Therefore the facts of story are chosen to fit the moral.

The fact is that there are two kinds of knowledge in this world. The kind you can get by reading books and case studies and the kind you cannot. For instance, you cannot become a concert pianist by reading piano books. You cannot become a carpenter by reading books on carpentry.

Business, especially in competitive fields, requires more of the second kind than the first. i.e. it is more like carpentry than philosophy. MBA schools think it is the other way around.

If you want to understand IKEA, you are better off assembling a flat packed wardrobe than reading a HBS case study.

The commenter OCarroll describes the world (and I know many share this opinion) as black and white. Some things you can learn from a book, some you can’t. Maybe it will be easier of the world did work like that. The world however, is made of many shades of gray.

Can you honestly tell me that a pianist can’t learn anything from reading books? From the understanding of music techniques (which I admittedly know nothing about), to relaxation and concentration methods to just pure inspiration by reading about great pianist of the past. All of these things can be learned from books. They will not teach him how to produce music per se, but they will allow him to be a much better pianist. And I will argue, that without this knowledge, his chances of becoming a great pianist greatly diminish.

Or take the carpenter example. Can you truly tell me that if a carpenter learns about different types of wood, how they react to different materials, how long they hold for and the best ways other carpenters in the past found to handling them he can learn nothing? I find this claim ridiculous. I am not saying you can become a carpenter without doing actual… well… carpentering, but to say that theory and books hold nothing for that carpenter is in my view, just wrong.

All of that does not take into account that people are just different. Some people learn better by doing. Some by reading. Some by observing. Some use the combination of all of the above. Each and every one of us is unique in the way we learn and in the way we develop.

But in OCarroll’s world, we are all the same. We all fall into “two kinds of knowledge in this world”. This approach is not only sad, it is also scary. This is the kind of thinking that later leads to fascism. Our way or not at all.

The world is not black and white. Thank god it is not. It is time we start embracing that fact. While management education deserves to be criticized and might not be employing the best of methods, to imply that theory, books and case studies give nothing is in my view, just plain wrong. What we need is more from both and not less from this or the other.



Google wave, failure, autopsy and learning

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Today, we all heard about Google shutting down its “Wave” program. As I saw the media and the web celebrating the fall of the new “giant we all love to hate” and posting things like: “I told you it will fail” I found myself thinking non-conformist thoughts and actually appreciating the move. The swiftness in which Google decided that this innovation did not work and the fact that they are not ashamed of trying new things and seeing how the market responds to them impressed me. More importantly, recognizing, quickly, that something is not working and shutting it down should is an act to be learned from (read Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years for examples of companies who did not know how to do that). I thought about writing a post about it, but smarter people than I beat me to it.

Karim R. Lakhani writes on

Some tech pundits were surprised that Google decided to shut down Wave yesterday just a year after its launch and chastised the company for its decision. But I’m not surprised and I applaud the company’s decision to pull the plug after it was clear the market wasn’t interested in Wave. From my vantage point as someone who studies innovation, Google’s decision was exactly the right move and provides some very important lessons for managing innovation in both small and large organizations.

I totally agree with Lakhani and the lessons he mentions (ad you should read his post). If I have something to add is that Google now faces one very important test that will be much less visible than the failure itself. The autopsy. Learning from the failure. I am quite sure that over the last couple of years many lessons, in many fields have accumulated in the process of developing, realizing and maintaining wave. Hell, just the decision to take it down is something that should be studied and analyzed to see what it means for future projects.

Time will tell what Google will learn. I will not be surprised if lessons from the wave “failure” will be incorporated into Google’s future products and strategy. And if that is the case, can we really call wave a failure? I don’t think so!