Join Amy Edmondson for an in-depth discussion in this video Learning from failure, part of Leading and Working in Teams.
- Teaming rarely unfolds perfectly, without any bumps or glitches along the way, that is, without any failures. This means that the ability to learn from failure is an essential teaming skill. Why is this so difficult? Why are we so uncomfortable with failure? Well, it starts from how we view failure. At an early age, we learn that it's not okay to fail. The good people are the ones that don't make mistakes, that don't fail, and yet, to learn you need to fail. Small failures are an important part of the journey toward success.
So, what can leaders do? While most leaders say they understand the importance of failure to the learning process, not many truly embrace it. Even companies that have invested significant money and effort into becoming learning organizations struggle when it comes to the day-to-day mindset and activities of learning from failure. When managers think about failure the wrong way, when they think failure is always bad, it's hard for people to learn from it. So, the first thing to understand is that all failure is not created equal.
Here's the simple truth about failure. It's sometimes bad, sometimes good, and often inevitable. But people are not usually good at making the distinction between good failures, failing forward, discovery of a new path that didn't work, and the preventable failures that we have a responsibility to work hard together to avoid. Good, bad, or inevitable, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. To learn from failure effectively, organizations must employ new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial.
The procedures weren't followed, for example. Or self-serving, the market just wasn't ready for our great new product. Helping people to understand this is a leadership task. It's helping them to reframe the way they're thinking, so that they understand that failure is inevitable, not shameful. Reframing involves three things. First, emphasize the relationship between uncertainty and failure. The less we know about the future, the more we can expect failures along the way.
Remind people of the imperfect nature of our current solutions to the challenges the company faces, whether those challenges are shifting technologies, volatile markets, new competitors, and so forth. This is essentially an invitation to others to help problem solve. The second leadership action for reframing failure is to set expectations about the level of failure expected. This conveys how much input and openness you actually need to figure out how to succeed.
And third, point out that each person has a crucial role to play in discovering the path forward. By reframing failure, you reject the notion that failure is something to avoid at all costs, and you embrace the idea that small failures are a part of the pathway to success. The best team members and leaders learn from intelligent failures and share the lessons widely.