Learning from Failure

I once had a government job as a manager with a small direct-report staff and responsibilities for training more than 200 employees. I was called into my supervisor’s office and asked to stop talking about mistakes I had made and failed business efforts. I was destroying employee confidence in me it seemed. Our corporate culture valued appearances more than honesty and learning from failures.

I always hope organizations will value honesty and courage in pursuit of success while analyzing failures.

I always hope organizations will value honesty and courage in pursuit of success while analyzing failures.

A number of very successful business people have failed one or more times in their careers, notably Walt Disney. He had a bankruptcy early on but seemed to do pretty well later in life.

I don’t think we learn much from success in most cases. If we make a good guess about a business or new program and it all works out, we just think we are brilliant. If we have a program or business enterprise fail, we have to readjust, do things differently. Hopefully we analyze why the idea was not so good and learn from it so that we can apply what we’ve learned as we plan our next venture.

In April of 2011 Amy Edmondon wrote in Harvard Business Review about Strategies for Learning from Failure, saying “the unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.”

Corporate cultures that embrace failure as an opportunity to learn often have very high standards for performance. I’m reminded that restaurants that ask at each meal how the food and service was are usually the ones that don’t need to ask.  They value honest feedback and use it to continuously improve.

Some of the best research and development organizations actually have protocols for analysis of failures because they expect many approaches to fail. They’re looking for the few successful approaches hidden within.

Cultures that cast blame and discourage open discussion of failures run the risk of seeming trouble-free when they actually harbor deep systemic problems. When we simply cast blame after failures, we are powerless. Someone else screwed up. Taking personal responsibility to have honest discussions, analyze what did not work, and enlist everyone in making improvements has hope of getting results.

Many organizations have a core value about honesty. That plays out in myriad ways, including the embrace of failures as another chance to learn and improve.

– Tim Merriman, Ph.D.

2 Responses to “Learning from Failure”

  1. Lars Wohlers Says:

    Good points, Tim, thanks!


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