Organizations are increasingly realizing that they can learn more from mistakes than from successes, and yet, speaking of failure remains a taboo difficult to break. Some organizations such as Engineers without Borders, have moved ahead and explained publicly their failures. Why and how? Here I share some examples of how organizations can take advantage of failure.
Creating safe sharing environments
One way to deal with the cultural stigma associated with failure is creating opportunities for deep reflection and “blameless” reporting. The case of Minnesota Children’s Hospital is well known for implementing a system of anonymous incident reporting, which was the basis for a dramatic reduction in medical errors. Much of the model change is linked to a management style based on open communication and safe spaces for reflection, promoted by some leaders at the top of their organizations.
In short, it is about treating failure as a natural and possible result. A good example is the work done by the Institute of Brilliant Failures, promoting a positive view of failure. Others have even utilized failures fairs, where specific examples of failed projects are shared. Common practices include storytelling, before and after action reviews, pre-mortem reviews, and others. Some organizations are beginning to share experiences through interesting failure reports such as the ones collected by Engineers Without Borders and a section of the IDB’s Development Effectiveness Overview 2013 which seek to build institutional memory and organizational learning from their mistakes.
Generating different responses for different types of failures
The way we understand failure is directly linked to our cultural preconceptions, and in many cases failure is seen as something negative. However, an article in Harvard Business Review suggests that we should consider different types of failure, and that not all are negative. There are predictable failures arising from routine operations, inevitable failures in complex systems, and “intelligent” failures that occur at the border of experimentation. It is almost always the case that only avoidable failures, which involve deliberate deviations from standard procedures or protocols, are truly reprehensible, such as the ones in surgical and medical procedures that require high precision.
The conclusion is that institutions can learn and improve by recognizing that not all failures are equal and establishing different institutional responses according to the each situation.
Focus only on relevant cases that improve our actual work
Another barrier that often prevents us from learning from our mistakes is the lack of incentives, usually expressed as a lack of time for tasks not related to the main business of the organization. Marilyn Darling (PDF) emphasizes that learning should be relevant to the actual work (“just in time”) and worth it, in the sense that it must produce more value than the time it takes (“fit for purpose”). Along the same lines, the EAST framework for changing behavior of the Behavioral Team in the UK Cabinet Office recommends “making it easy” as one of their four core principles for change. A good practice is to relate the lessons of the past with a day-to-day problem or challenge, so reflection is useful and relevant to the actual work.
Experimentation as the basis for learning
Many authors understand experimentation as related to hypothesis testing or “intelligent” failures. Experimentation is suitable for contexts where the costs of failure are low and the challenges can be addressed in different ways, there is no clear solution, or where different approaches have similar chances of success or failure. Companies like Facebook and other social networks continually test new template designs, new features and functionalities and continually review what does not work. This model would be feasible in other contexts if using phased approaches and introducing environments that enable experimentation and positive deviation (explores those who manage to solve their problems acting differently from their community), especially on issues of governance and institutional capacity of the state (see the notion of problem-driven iterative adaptation)
Failure and error are as common as our successes, but in order to take advantage of them we need to modify our way of understanding failure. To learn more about how to learn from failure, check out the IDB InfoGuides about learning from failure for a selection of relevant sources.
Bertha is a lead specialist in the Department of Knowledge and Learning at the IDB, where she supports the development of knowledge management methodologies and tools for operational and executing teams. As an official of multilateral organizations, she has worked in Latin America, Asia and Africa. As an official of the government of Colombia, she worked in the Central Bank and in the Planning Department. She has a master's degree in international development from Harvard University.