Business Failures: How Do We Learn from Mistakes?

I recently read an interesting HBR article called Strategies for Learning from Failure, by Amy C. Edmondson (April 2011). The author states that ineffective beliefs about failure inhibits managers from learning from mistakes.

“The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is under-appreciated…Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame-game gets in the way.”~ Amy C. Edmondson

I see this in action in the work I do with executives. There’s considerable amount of energy assigning or avoiding blame. When that happens, attention is drawn away from learning what went wrong. Blame takes over, rather than learning strategies.

Most executives I work with struggle with this problem: how can they respond constructively to failures without appearing lenient? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try better to do their best work?

How do you make it safe to report on and admit to mistakes, AND enforce high performance standards? One shouldn’t exclude the other. What Professor Edmondson contributes to this worthy discussion is a “spectrum of reasons for failure.” I’ll summarize them here:

  1. Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
  2. Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.
  3. Lack of Ability: An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.
  4. Process Inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.
  5. Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
  6. Process Complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
  7. Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.
  8. Hypothesis Testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.
  9. Exploratory Testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired results.

If you look at this spectrum, it goes from mistakes that are blameworthy to those that could be considered praiseworthy.  How many of the failures in your business results are truly blameworthy? Compare that to how many are treated as blameworthy, and you’ll have a better understanding of why so many failures go unreported.

You can’t learn lessons from mistakes when the emphasis is on blaming. Does this happen in your organization? I’d love to hear from you.

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