Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why we don't learn from our failures

No one likes to fail. But it's a fact of life. There are times when, no matter how hard we plan and despite our best intentions, we fall short -- sometimes way short -- of expectations. We miss our goals. I certainly have .

Unfortunately, it's rare for most organizations (teams, athletic programs, and sports franchises included) to "systematically and effectively learn from failure," which can be defined as a "deviation from expected and desired results."

My sister recently forwarded me a paper written by two professors -- one from Vanderbilt, one from Harvard -- entitled "Failing to learn and learning to fail." [Here's a link to the PDF of the paper.]

According to the paper, "multiple causes of large failures are usually deeply embedded in the organizations where the failures occurred, have been ignored or taken for granted for years, and rarely are simple to correct."

For many of us who've worked for companies, departments, or teams that have struggled, we can relate to this statement.

What's interesting is that "most organizations' inability to learn from failure is due to a lack of attention to small, everyday organizational failures." In other words, we dismiss or overlook these "early warning signs which, if detected and addressed, may be the key to avoiding catastrophic failure in the future."

So why don't we learn from our mistakes? Why do we ignore even seemingly small or insignificant "mess ups" or slips?

The authors contend (and I agree) that it's because "most individuals experience strong negative feelings in response to their own failures, such that acknowledging and examining them can be a very bitter pill. We have a tendency to deny, distort, ignore, and disassociate ourselves from our own failures."

So it's our inability to examine failures objectively that "greatly reduce the ability of most organizations to learn from failure. Without a clear model of what it takes to learn from failure, organizations are at a disadvantage."

The key to improving, according to the authors, is to first identify failure and then to analyze it.

This means gathering feedback, engaging in frank and candid discussions, conducting what the U.S. Army calls "After Action Reviews," and bringing in people from outside the organization who are less "emotionally tied" to the issue to offer "new perspectives and insights that counteract self-serving biases."

[Here's an excellent article about "After Action Reviews" that might be of interest. And here's a more detailed guide produced by the U.S. Army.]

Write the authors, "After experiencing failure, people typically attribute too much blame to other people and forces beyond our control" which reduces our ability to "dig out the key learning." We don't honestly assess our performance and look for ways to improve it in the future.

Finally, the paper offers a simple step we can take, which is to "learn from small failures." In their words, "focusing first on small failures rather than catastrophic ones" helps to "minimize the threatening nature of failure to gain experience and momentum in the learning process."

Here's how the authors conclude their paper:

"Reframing failure from something associated with shame and weakness to something associated with...improvement is a critical first step in the learning journey."