Sunday, June 26, 2016

Does Your Organisation Encourage Learning From Failure?

Whether your organisation learns from failure will be very much dependent on your organisations leadership and the culture they have created. I’d suggest that the stronger and more confident the leadership, the more likely the organisation will have a culture that encourages ‘innovation’, is not risk averse and responds positively to failure – though not if the failure reoccurs.
It’s the organisations that have weak leadership – those people over promoted or promoted based on past performance – where risk aversion is the norm, and failure is a word that you only hear whispered in hallowed corridors and never openly discussed or debated as a ‘tool’ for organisational, team and individual learning and development.
In an article by Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas entitled ‘Increase Your Return on Failure’ (Harvard Business Review, May, 2016) they suggest that “though leaders know that they must tolerate and even embrace failure in the pursuit of innovation and growth, most will still do anything they can to avoid it” (p.91), yet when something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to challenge your default beliefs and adjust accordingly. Birkenshaw and Haas recommend spelling out what the project has taught you about each of the following;
1. Your Organisations Strategy, Culture, and Process;
2. Your Organisations Leadership Style:
3. Yourself and Your Team;
4. Your Focus on Proactive/Reactive Planning and Re-Planning; and
5. Your Approach Future Projects and Trends – i.e. Key Learning Points.
Birkenshaw and Hass highlight how venture capital firms are very disciplined about examining their ‘failure review process’ by asking direct questions like, are we learning from every unsuccessful endeavour? Are we sharing these lessons across the organisation? And is this helping us improve our strategy and execution? (p.93).
Arrogance is a ‘common and historical’ block to both seeing and accepting failure. Edward J Smith the captain of the Titanic famously said when asked how he could best describe his nearly 40 years at sea just before that fateful voyage – “Uneventful. I have never been in an accident and I have never seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I have never seen a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor have I ever been in any predicament that threatened to end in any sort of disaster of any sort.” This arrogance was so strong that it perpetuated throughout the whole crew, to the extent that a steward on the Titanic when asked if it was true that the ship was unsinkable, replied “Madam, God himself could not sink this ship.”
Pamela Waymack stated in her 2006 article, “management’s overconfidence and failure to see its own vulnerability contributed to the sinking of the Titanic. Neither historic track record nor size and prowess are a match for a market in flux. We cannot assume that our organisations are invincible. A seaworthy captain with a spotless record for 40 years was no match for a field of icebergs,” (p.41).
One thing that is certain in today’s turbulent global economy is that markets are nearly constantly in flux – and to stay ahead, or even just to stay in business, organisations can’t be scared to fail occasionally and embrace must be mature enough to see failure as an integral part of their forward thinking strategy. Having a workforce that isn’t frightened to be innovative and think ‘for’ the organisation is worth its weight in gold.
We have to remember that as humans we are actually used to learning from failure – as innocent children we learn so much from failure, like touching that hot stove to falling off our bikes. We have a natural internal failure assessment process seemingly from when we are born – so it is already part of our DNA – and only poor organisational cultures or bad leaders inhibit and scare us into hiding from failure. If you’ve ever worked for an organisation that doesn’t accept failure – then you’ll remember the psychological impact this had on you as an employee and how your productivity, motivation and general engagement is negatively affected. In these situations it’s a lose-lose for all involved – though the leadership sadly never seem to recognises it.
As Birkenshaw and Haas conclude “failure is less painful when you extract the maximum value from it. If you learn from each mistake, large and small, share those lessons, and periodically check that these processes are helping your organisation move more efficiently in the right direction, your return on failure will skyrocket,” (p.93) 
Birkenshaw, J. and Hass, M. (2016). Increase Your Return on Failure. Harvard Business Review, May, p.88 – 93.
Waymack, P. (2006). Managing the ice in the waters ahead: Lessons from the Titanic. HFM, Vol 60, Issue 7, p.38-41.