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On Failure – and Building an Environment to Learn


I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work – Thomas Edison

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) is called “The Failure Issue” (April 2011).

The whole magazine is devoted to articles on the causes and ramifications of failure, but most importantly, on what you can do to learn from failure rather than try to avoid it.

One of the articles I particularly enjoyed was by Amy C Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management at the Harvard Business School.  The article is titled “Strategies for Learning from Failure” (from p. 48).  On pages 52 and 53, Edmondson details “How Leaders can Build a Psychologically Safe Environment”.  She has broken down the practices that she has determined from her studies that create an environment that allows the identification of failures and the learning from them.

Frame the Work Accurately – People need a shared understanding of the kinds of failures that can be expected to occur in a given work context…and why openness and collaborations are important for surfacing and learning from them.  Accurate framing detoxifies failure.

Embrace Messengers – Those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns or mistakes should be rewarded rather than shot.  Celebrate the value of the news first and then figure out how to fix the failure and learn from it.

Acknowledge Limits – Being open about what you don’t know, mistakes you’ve made and what you can’t get done alone will encourage others to do the same.

Invite Participation – Ask for observations and ideas and create opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures and promote intelligent experiments.  Inviting participation helps defuse resistance and defensiveness.

Set Boundaries and Hold People Accountable – Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy.  And there must be consequences.  But if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame.

Failure is a necessary “evil” in life and business.  As we often discuss with our customers (and often with our people) – “you don’t learn from getting things right”.  It is the mistake, error or failure that shows up an issue that needs to be addressed.  By creating an environment where people are encouraged to question approaches and identify areas where things are “not quite right”, you’re encouraging them to participate more fully, you’re enabling them to take more responsibility and accountability and you will engage them more in what they’re doing for and with you.

To penalise and “hide” failure is to see it oft repeated and “perfected”.  This is obviously not in anyone’s interest.  All of us parents will know that it is the way we deal with our kids when they get things wrong that helps them to learn and excel.  And even we parents get it wrong sometimes!  But it the constant learning from the errors and mistakes/failures that make us better at what we do.

So rather than run/hide from failure, approach it for the potential gift it can be and create a culture in your business and family that allows you and everyone around you to learn from the failures and mistakes that are made.  It will help to fashion the customs and mores in your business and family that will stand you in good stead.

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