How can we learn from failure?

Source: Management Team (28/06/2019); Author: Professor Karlien Vanderheyden

Thomas Edison experienced many setbacks in the process of inventing the light bulb. But thanks to all these failures, he also gained the knowledge that eventually led to success. After all, it is only by making mistakes that we learn to reflect on the way we do things. This leads to new insights and knowledge. Through research into ‘learning from failure’, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson also reached the conclusion that although many organisations consider this kind of learning important, very few of them actually take a good approach to it. Why? Because most managers look at failure the wrong way.

Blame game

Many leaders find it difficult to respond constructively to failure. After all, if we are no longer allowed to blame an employee when something goes wrong, how can we ensure that employees will still do their best to perform as well as possible? When Amy Edmondson asked managers what percentage of failures were serious enough to actually blame someone, they answered between 2 and 5%. But in practice, it turns out that 70 to 90% of human errors are tackled in this way. The result? Many errors within organisations are not talked about, so nobody learns from these mistakes.

Types of failure

There are three main categories of errors:

1. Preventable errors in predictable situations

One example of this is errors made during routine operations in a production process. The cause can generally be identified quickly and the problem can soon be resolved.

2. Unavoidable errors in complex systems

These errors are connected with the uncertainties of the work: in some situations, a given combination of needs, people and problems rarely occurs together. For example, such situations might happen in the emergency department of a hospital or a fast-growing start-up that finds itself facing unforeseen circumstances.

3. Intelligent errors

These errors are the result of experimentation, e.g. when developing new drugs or testing customer reactions in a new market. It is precisely these errors which help an organisation to acquire new knowledge, grow and stay ahead of the competition.

Developing a learning culture

As a leader, you can create a culture that goes against the blame game, in such a way that people feel comfortable about bringing mistakes up for discussion. As a leader, you must insist that it is important to know WHAT went wrong and not WHO was wrong.

Three aspects are of great importance here.

1. Reporting mistakes

The behaviour of managers is crucial here. You can communicate your own mistakes, you can encourage a discussion about mistakes, you can open up to questions and adopt a curious attitude rather than an all-knowing one. You can also use systems to detect mistakes. For example, you can ask your employees to use codes when reporting: green stands for good, yellow for alertness and red for problems. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly even holds ‘failure parties’. It helps them give credit to high-quality experiments, to learn from them and to allow their scientists to work on new projects in a timely manner.

2. Analysing mistakes

Dissecting mistakes is emotionally difficult and it can have an adverse effect on our self-confidence. Leaders should help people to see this process as a natural part of learning and the road to success. It is also important for managers to teach employees to look for alternative explanations and not to stick to existing beliefs. One way of doing this is to work in multidisciplinary teams that have different skills and can examine a problem from various different perspectives.

3. Setting up experiments

Scientists who do fundamental research know that most of their experiments will fail. However, they also know that any failure will provide valuable information that is needed for ultimate success in achieving their aims. In organisations, managers often create optimal conditions rather than representative situations when designing experiments.
If you can embrace what goes wrong in experiments, it will generate a lot of useful and innovative ideas.

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