16 Jun Are you brave enough to learn from failure?
Have you noticed a morbid fascination with failure in the business press recently? Perhaps it’s been brought on by a need to learn from the last recession. But whatever the reason, it’s especially resonant with us because failure and the resultant accidents mean life-changing consequences for everyone involved.
And it’s not just disasters on the scale of Deepwater Horizon that matter. There are small failures every day which leave people with chronic problems that affect the quality of their lives forever.
But despite the apparent frequency of failure, people are still very poor at learning from it. Even in well-established industries I regularly meet many organisations who struggle with repeat incidents.
Take this recent eye-opening experience I had at an automotive manufacturing company for example; in an industry traditionally associated with an excellent track-record of learning from past-experience to refine evermore efficient processes. Whilst there was a real pride in sharing experience of where things had gone wrong, translating that into actual lessons learned was proving extremely difficult.
Their employees had almost totally missed the logical conclusion of sharing lessons from failure: engaging with each other to learn and improve from it. Why?
People know failure is important
We often use failure in a very visible way to get people to think about the consequences of their actions but it seems to stop there. And scare tactics only work for a short time.
Perhaps we underestimate the very negative emotions that come with trying to understand failure. That then prevents us from going any further and learning from it. Especially when discussing failure poses some pretty difficult personal questions:
- “Will I get the blame for this?”
- “Is it really worth spending time analysing this? I don’t need any more pressure.”
- “Will people get annoyed if I start asking questions about this accident?”
- “Are people really going to tell me the truth?”
- “Do I have to be the one to point out some unpleasant facts?”
You need courage to understand failure
That’s courage to build a culture that learns from its mistakes and isn’t afraid of some unpalatable truths. An organisation where engaging with each other, asking tough questions and taking time to understand failure is valued and encouraged.
In a recent article for Harvard Business Review magazine, Amy C. Edmondson called this a Psychologically Safe Environment and suggested five steps towards creating it:
- Frame the work accurately: Help people understand what kind of failure might occur
- Embrace messengers: Praise those who come forward with bad news
- Acknowledge limits: Be open about what you don’t know
- Invite participation: Ask others for observations and ideas
- Set boundaries and hold people accountable: People feel safer when they know which acts invite blame
(The Competitive Imperative of Learning by Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management)
Plucking up courage is a small price to pay for a safer working environment. And together with these simple principles for learning it creates profoundly positive changes for organisations and every individual involved.