Strategies for Learning from Failure

stop negative thinking

Reprint: R1104B

Many executives believe that all failure is bad (although it usually provides lessons) and that learning from it is pretty straightforward. The author, a professor at Harvard Business School, thinks both beliefs are misguided. In organizational life, she says, some failures are inevitable and some are even good. And successful learning from failure is not simple: It requires context-specific strategies. But first leaders must understand how the blame game gets in the way and work to create an organizational culture in which employees feel safe admitting or reporting on failure.

Failures fall into three categories: preventable ones in predictable operations, which usually involve deviations from spec; unavoidable ones in complex systems, which may arise from unique combinations of needs, people, and problems; and intelligent ones at the frontier, where “good” failures occur quickly and on a small scale, providing the most valuable information.

Strong leadership can build a learning culture—one in which failures large and small are consistently reported and deeply analyzed, and opportunities to experiment are proactively sought. Executives commonly and understandably worry that taking a sympathetic stance toward failure will create an “anything goes” work environment. They should instead recognize that failure is inevitable in today’s complex work organizations.

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