Summary: Failures are bad. Learning from them is easy. Right? Well not quite. Organizations need better ways to go beyond superficial or self-serving learning and recognition might be just the right solution.


“I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” – Thomas Alva Edison.

As babies and toddlers we learn by failing – and repeatedly so. Again and again we keep at it till we learn and achieve our objectives (even if it is just to steal sweets from the vessel kept high on the shelf).

But then, school happens and failure becomes a F-word. Even the grade associated with (perceived) failure is F! (Too much of a coincidence, that one). This unfortunately continues into (most) university courses and workplaces. You are expected to succeed – every single time.

While it is easy to see the absurdity of that expectation but still failure is largely not tolerated and actively punished (lower ratings, lesser pay, no promotion or demotion and sometimes lay offs). It’s hardly surprising that the motivation of the work force is mostly aligned towards risk avoidance (bordering on risk aversion) rather than innovation and improvements.

Everybody thus ends up waiting for someone ‘else’ to fix the problems. This is especially true in large organizations and government institutions since the risk/reward of doing things ‘differently’ is heavily skewed towards risk.

Fundamentally from the organization’s perspective the challenge is in being tolerant of failures while ensuring that a ‘anything-goes’ attitude doesn’t set in. Prof. Amy Edmondson of HBS feels that this concern is in fact based on a false dichotomy – and in reality a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can coexist with high standards of performance. (1)


The Failure Spectrum and Engagement Zones:

The ‘Spectrum of Reasons of failure’ that Edmondson presents in her article, makes a case for supervisors to dive deeper and really understand the root cause for the failure.

It is my argument that an efficient root cause analysis can be quite revealing about the engagement levels of the employee.

At one extreme Deviance and Inattention can be consequences of active disengagement. Note though, in no way am I making a case that the current failure/action is responsible for the disengagement – in all likely hood issues would have been festering for a long time. No employee becomes actively disengaged overnight.

In fact, the middle region of the spectrum is most interesting from an employee engagement perspective. Things like bad job fit, uncertainty and process complexity are often the sources for frustration – and when those feelings are not addressed or worse – punished, disengagement sets in. If the organization lets the situation fester for long enough, the employee either exits or becomes actively disengaged.

This region of the spectrum while most challenging also gives management to run active interventions and solve potential disengagement. If failures are identified being caused due to lack of task clarity or process complexity, these are exactly the kinds of things that companies need to avoid.

It is sexy to pretend that things are complex – but in reality most things aren’t. A manager who truly understands the big picture, has clarity about team and organizational goals should be able to alleviate these primary frustrations for her team members.

On the other extreme is failure caused due to hypothesis or exploratory testing. These are the kinds of failures which when happen in a controlled fashion actually serve as seeds for innovation.


Building an “anti-fragile” (and learning) organization through recognition:  

 I have written about anti-fragile organizations before on this blog. Having a framework to handle failure is core to building a resilient organization – thriving on the right kind failure is core to building an anti-fragile one!

 Companies can transform failure into an advantage by building a culture where failure is analyzed dispassionately. Instead of fixing blame on people, the analysis could focus on what happened. Management can walk the talk by celebrating the right kinds of failure through rewards. Social recognition – organization wide – on things that didn’t quite work out the way they were supposed to can be a massive booster for engagement.

Eli Lilly has been doing this since the 90’s through their ‘failure parties’ to recognize intelligent and high-quality experiments that well…failed.

Another famous celebration of failure is the Toyota Production System (TPS) where team members are encouraged to the ‘andon cord’ when a problem occurs. If the issue can’t be solved in under a minute, production stops till the failure is analyzed and an appropriate solution is determined.

While these are examples of large complex systems (R&D in Eli Lilly, and advanced JIT production in Toyota’s case) – companies can celebrate ‘failures’ in simpler systems too – a marketing campaign that bombed, a new code algorithm that didn’t quite deliver results or even a spirited attempt to fix the WiFi routers for maximum reach in the office. There is no failure too small or too large to celebrate.

The challenge is to ensure that management doesn’t do this as a one-off and fail at celebrating failure as a habit!

References and Acknowledgments: 

Strategies for learning from failure, Amy Edmondson, HBR

Spectrum for reasons of failure used in image is also sourced from the above reference.


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