The Limits of Learning From Failure

By Kevin Meyer Updated on February 28th, 2019

Experienced leaders know that failure is not necessarily a negative, and can lead to both individual and organizational learning.  We try to embrace failure and create a culture where appropriate failure is accepted as long as it’s learned from, giving our team members the space and support to fail.  That creates learning and innovation.

Preferably the possibility of failure is an intentional result.  To achieve this positive outcome an experiment is defined, with expected potential outcomes identified, and then there is an intentional reflection activity on what actually happened. This reflection creates the learning and becomes the foundation for future experiments.  Many of us are beginning to see this manifestation of the PDCA process as kata.

Sometimes it’s unintentional, where we are thrust into an unexpected situation with even more unexpected results.  An family medical emergency years ago taught me a lot about compassion, self-care, and the insurance industry.  Two decades ago a rapid change in an industry taught me how to manage extreme business disruption.

And, yes, sometimes it’s just stupidity.  Most of us have experienced this often particularly painful form of learning in our (hopefully) earlier years.  Somehow we survived.

Failure as a learning tool has limits. Would you put a chef in the cockpit of a plane and be ok with him learning that he doesn’t know how to fly? Or letting a child try driving a car? Of course not. The learning experience of failure is one thing, but the consequences of the failure itself must be considered.  A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, The Truth About Failing Spectacularly, looks at this balance.

Consider this example:

The sinking of the MS Explorer on November 23, 2007, was one of the most bewildering disasters in modern maritime history. Sixteen months after the accident, marine safety investigators representing Liberia, where the Explorer was registered, fixed the blame primarily on one person: Bengt Wiman, the ship’s 49-year-old captain, who’d been commanding the Explorer for the first time and had participated in only one Antarctic voyage.

Or this one:

In the runup to the Super Bowl, one of the hottest storylines was the precocity of Sean McVay, the innovative 33-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The high-flying offense he’d built had turned the Rams into a contender, prompting several other NFL teams to hire untested coaches, too.

On Feb. 3, however, that parade got rained out. The New England Patriots, coached by the 66-year-old veteran Bill Belichick, devised a stifling defensive game plan that limited the Rams to three points. On a day that Mr. McVay became the youngest coach in Super Bowl history, he also tied another record—fewest points scored.

Maybe I’m trying to make a case for experience, and I’m a bit biased as I hit my mid 50s.

These allegations seem to suggest that any business ought to think twice before sending a lightly seasoned manager on a perilous new assignment. The real problem, I’d argue, is that when first-time leaders fail, they often do so spectacularly.

The main reason veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically is that they’ve failed before. They’ve learned where problems come from and how to spot them in the larval stages. Their genius is being able to identify a ship’s weakest rivets before setting sail, and formulating a plan that protects them from unsustainable pressure.

Experience definitely plays into the failure equation, but in order to learn we need to provide opportunities for failure to everyone on the experience continuum.  In fact, we know that some of the best and most innovative ideas often come from folks with less experience and hence less blinders from preconceived frameworks.  So what do we need to put into place to hit the sweet spot?

For starters, a less experienced person can be supported by others with more experience.  This new leader must be receptive to receiving the lessons of that experience, but also confident and able to evaluate those lessons balanced with new ideas and thinking.

Perhaps more importantly is an environment that encourages and supports a scientific approach to problem-solving and investigating new opportunities, such as PDCA and the kata derivative.  What is the current state?  What is the ultimate goal?  What barriers are in the way of achieving that goal?  What is the next experiment that can be run to remove a barrier, and what are the expected results?  What are the potential risks, and are those risks reasonable and acceptable?  If not, can they be mitigated to an acceptable level?  Then run the experiment and reflect on what actually happened, what was learned, and how that be applied to the next experiment.

Failure can be a great learning tool, especially if it is planned.  Create an environment that supports and learns from failure, but also use the scientific method, coupled with experience, to understand and mitigate the risks.

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