Learning from Failure

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Failure Understand It


Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management and co-head of the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School.

We are programmed at an early age to think that failure is bad. That belief prevents organizations from effectively learning from their missteps. by Amy C. Edmondson



THE WISDOM OF LEARNING from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This gap is not due to a lack of commitment to learning. Managers in the vast majority of enterprises that I have studied over the past 20 years—pharmaceutical, financial services, product design, telecommunications, and construction companies; hospitals; and NASA’s space shuttle program, among others—genuinely wanted to help their organizations learn from failures to improve future performance. In some cases they and their teams had devoted many hours to after-action reviews, postmortems, and the like. But time after time I saw that these painstaking efforts led to no real change. The reason: Those managers were thinking about failure the wrong way. Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization. These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new product”). That means jettisoning old April 2011 Harvard Business Review 49


A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure

An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.

cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.

An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.

The Blame Game
Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized. Executives I’ve interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work? This concern is based on a false dichotomy. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can—and in some organizational contexts must—coexist with high standards for performance. To understand why, look at the exhibit “A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure,” which lists causes ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation. Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate deviance, first on the list, obviously warrants blame. But inattention might not. If it results from a lack of effort, perhaps it’s blameworthy. But if it results from fatigue near the end of an overly long shift, the manager who...
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