Before starting The Hershey Company, Milton Hershey had founded three candy companies that failed. Henry Ford’s first two experiments with manufacturing cars had no success. Before Twitter, Evan Williams had started a podcast platform that soon became outdated. For each of these leaders, failure became the proverbial stepping stone to success.

Bill Gates who failed with his first company, Traf-O-Data, says, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Though, usually, organizations do not consider failure as part of the working process, because it has negative associations.

Research says that organizations fail to spin failure into learning because they focus too much on success; they take actions too quickly and try too hard to fit in. A case study of Toyota recalling 9 million vehicles in 2009 suggests what might have happened: that their chase to become the world’s largest automobile producer had compromised their practice of learning, leading to mistakes.

Mark Cannon’s and Amy Edmondson’s studies reveal that an organization’s inability to innovate, improve, and learn from failure, reflects upon its leaders or organizational practices. To change that, enterprises need to implement learning from failure as an integrated set of practices and view it as a critical first step to discovery. In her research for the Harvard Business Review, Edmondson shares strategies to help with this:

Detect failure. If employees are expected to report failure, they should have the ability to identify and discuss them, right? Here’s how:

  • Slow down in situations of tight deadlines and pressure.
  • Assess risk continuously. High levels of risk can build up to future failure.
  • Identify the smallest of mistakes. If left unidentified, they could turn into big failures.
  • Encourage people to speak up if they think something is wrong. People often stay quiet to conform to group norms or the majority opinion, even if they believe something might not work.

Analyze failure. Learning cannot be realized without careful analysis or a dialogue. The earlier one identifies and analyzes mistakes, the better it is.

  • Come up with a plan to approach the problem – tactical, operational, or legal.
  • When someone fails, communication is key. Make it safe for employees to report failures. Don’t be reluctant to confront bad news.
  • In situations of failure, find ways to increase morale and avoid disappointment.
  • Help identify opportunities during a crisis or setback. Fix the problem.
  • Ask “Why did this happen? What can we learn from these challenges so that we do things differently or better?”

Promote deliberate experimentation. Plan and try out new things to see if they work. Organizations that experiment effectively are likely to be more innovative, productive, and successful.

  • Experiments mostly have uncertain outcomes, making it apt for learning new things.
  • Experimentation helps test ideas, rather than assume that they will work.
  • Technical skills are critical for experimentation, since the results will need analysis. This helps employees build such skills.

Learning by failing is essential for organizations that seek to build a culture of continuous learning in their teams. Let us embrace failures. And to make the most out of them, follow up with the powerful practice of reflection.

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