Increase Your Return On Failure

Increase Your Return on Failure
HBR, May 2016, p88
By Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas

Learning from your failures always seems like a good idea and it is usually okay to talk about other people’s failures, we call this gossip, but most people don’t like to talk about their own failures. Talking about one’s own failures can be challenging to one’s own identity. It takes a leader at a later stage of adult development to really learn from failure and become a bigger person instead of retreating into a defensive shell. Such leaders are rare. So how does the organization really learn from failure?

At earlier stages of adult development people use their work as a strong part of their identity so experiencing a failure at work is the same as experiencing a failure of one’s identity and can be devastating. The organizational culture can overcome this by defining the role of a person as including a discussion of their failures. As long as this is kept in a positive vein and not used for punitive purposes then discussing failure can be made a positive part of the workplace culture and therefore part of one’s identity.

The article describes some good processes for learning from failure. What they are really talking about though, is a full on culture change and the article does not frame the processes in that way. The culture of an organization determines how people deal with failures. If it is part of the culture, people at an earlier stage of adult development will adopt the behaviors for learning from failure as long as everyone else is doing this and it is part of their role in the organization. People can adopt a later stage of development without really functioning at that level if they are in an environment that is at a later stage. The environment, or culture, is determined in large measure by the leader of the organization, which is why it is so important to have someone at the top who lives at a later stage of development instead of just giving it lip service. The leader needs to be at a later stage of adult development or the culture will not change and the organization will not learn from its failures.

The article recommends holding post failure reviews, sharing lessons learned through frequent meetings and reviewing all the failures to see if you need to make process changes, which is quite likely. All this, according to the article, must be done in an environment where people feel safe and everyone understands. For most companies this is a full on culture change and most leaders are simply not capable of creating this level of change.