January, 30, 2015
Learning from Failure
15 May
Posted by Shubha Kasivisweswaran

Despite all efforts, there are times when one fails – it is beyond debate that learning from that instance to never commit the same mistakes is the best way to grow as an individual and the same applies to an organisation

Failure is an integral part of growth and although painful, it is often a key stepping stone to success. I will not belabour the fact that we can – and should – learn from failure. In the corporate world, managers who believe that the road to success is paved with impeccable planning and infallible executions are of a bygone era, when change was a rare phenomenon and innovation stemmed from science labs. In this article, I shall explore some common kinds of failure and see how we may learn from them – as individuals, teams and organisations. Also, we shall focus on the types of failures that occur despite best efforts. There are cases where failure arises out of negligence or wilful non-cooperation; there are also times when failure is planned to test hypothesis or assumptions and these are outside the purview of this article.

Acknowledging failure

Earlier expectations of performance were focused on error-free results and maximising efficiency at every possible juncture. Failure is now a badge of credit and indicates the courage to go out on a limb and experiment. The biggest hurdle to learning from failure for an individual is the bias that colours self-evaluation. To learn from individual failure, the first step is to acknowledge it. This is less common than one would expect. Even the most self-aware among us often justify events that show us in unfavourable light and this is one of the fundamental blocks to learning. There are two powerful ways to get beyond this – one is to write up the entire event as a business case and analyse it after a few days of having written it. The other is to bring in a trusted friend, preferably someone more senior, to review the situation and comment. The effectiveness of both these techniques presupposes a willingness to listen and learn.

The next key aspect of successful learning from failure is to take a holistic view – that means not just look at what went wrong and why you failed, but also look at what went well and what succeeded, both planned and unplanned. The former shows you what not to do (remember scientist Thomas Edison who claimed he had not failed– he had merely discovered a hundred ways how not to do something). The latter is undervalued – it reinforces some assumptions you made during planning, teaches you the impact of what works and the linkages between the moving parts of your process. This is extendable to learning from your successes as well as your failures.Complexities of a team

The dynamics within a team are more complex and makes learning more of a challenge. While the group’s collective intelligence quotient (IQ) is more than the sum of the individual IQs, it also sometimes creates more hurdles in facing and staying together during failures. A failure as a team is a severe test of a team’s sense of unity. Weaker teams tend to fall apart in a sequence of failure leading to fault and the downward spiral begins. So, the first step once failure strikes in a team is for the leader to step in before the first word is spoken and direct the team to reflection and constructive discussion. Teams that have been through failures and successes together can afford to free-flow through the analysis since their relationships are well set. Younger teams, however, need direction. The fine line between assigning responsibility and allocating fault is a critical one that needs to be maintained. Learning from failures for a team centres around the following:

  • Individual roles, actions, attitudes; the structure of the team may be revisited as well to arrive at a more useful one
  • Processes for functioning within the team, including highlighting and owning grey areas, raising the flag when doubts or scepticism seeps in.
  • The external face of the team, which could include the teams interface with other parts of the organisation from a workflow perspective and the informal networks that criss-cross the team across the organisation. Learning would involve redefining some existing rules, surfacing dormant flows and so on.

It goes without saying that if a particular instance of failure is because the leader failed to lead the team, then none of these will make much of a difference.

Complexities of an organisation

Organisational learning is a separate area of study altogether and some best practices around organisational learning are:

  • Post event learning must be deliberate and planned, not left to accident.
  • Individuals and teams must focus on what went well during failures and what went wrong during successes. This type of inverse focus brings in a balanced view, highlights the missing learnings on first glance and allows for recovery from failures much faster.
  • Post event analysis is most effective when it focuses on what worked and what failed. Field studies in the Israeli military with two groups have shown that the soldiers who went through post event sessions that focused on successes and failures learnt more and faster than the group which focused on learning only from failures. This is warranted in organisation practice as well.

Some generic takeaways from any failure in an organisational context are derived by asking the following questions: What assumptions did I make going into this event? Which assumptions have been proven right/wrong? How will I treat this failure – thus, sending a message on tolerance on failure in my culture? Where does the buck stop – bottom of the chain or at the top? Do I know what caused the failure? Of the factors that contributed, which ones can and which cannot be assigned fault? Which behaviours will I still choose to encourage – for example, I will still choose to encourage experimenting, but will discourage poorly researched risk taking.

Finally, understanding the cause of failure is at the core of learning. At the organisational level, leadership plays a significant role in successes and failures and is one of the first aspects to be isolated and understood.

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