One of the most underrated strategies for changing the prospects on a product, company, organization or process, is learning from failure and applying what you have learned. Most organizations, and of course the people in them, believe that failure is bad. They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong, perhaps write a report about it and encourage them to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Failure is not always bad. In organizations and companies sometimes failure can be bad, but sometimes it’s inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward since most lessons are superficial and they allow us to cling to existing ideas of success.
Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most organizations. We all learn early that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations reward learning from failure. Failure can come from many sources ranging from inattention, willfully violating a process, lack of ability and process complexity, to uncertainty and exploratory testing. As we go through this range we begin to see that some of these may make it difficult to identify the exact nature of the failure. A sophisticated understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in organizations, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related and intelligent.
Preventable failures in predictable operations:Most failures in this category can indeed be considered “bad.” They usually involve deviations from spec in the closely defined processes of high-volume or routine operations in manufacturing and services. With proper training and support, employees can follow those processes consistently.
Unavoidable failures in complex systems:A large number of organizational failures are due to the inherent uncertainty of work. Although serious failures can be averted by following best practices small process failures are inevitable. To consider them bad is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive. Avoiding consequential failures means rapidly identifying and correcting small failures.
Intelligent failures at the frontier:Failures in this category can rightly be considered “good,” because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organization leap ahead of the competition and ensure its future growth. But failure is still inherently emotionally charged; getting an organization to accept it takes leadership. Insist that your organization develop a clear understanding of what happened, not of “who did it, when things go wrong.
Here are some tips to consistently help learn from failures: