The word "failure" derives from the Latin for "to trip" or "to stumble" - a nice reminder that even when it feels like you've lost all your forward momentum, you can always reset and keep on walking.
Failure seems to be on everyone's mind these days. The global pandemic is a no brainer along with supply chain challenges... along with expectations for performance higher than ever, setbacks for organizations looming large and let's add mental health to the mix. Uncertainty and rapid change are extreme ingredients for failure. How do we define failure and the effect of it on our system and us? How do we recover from it and most importantly, what are the pearls of wisdom that we acquire when going through such experiences?
Success can welcome failure by hindering learning at both the individual and organization level. We've all heard that we can learn from failure, but surprisingly learning from success can present even greater challenges. Fundamental attribution errors may allow one to think that no more changes need to be made to adjust with the system and approach. Overconfidence bias results in too much self-assurance. Our blinders come on and the need to question system and procedures does not happen during such events. The failure to ask why syndrome should come into effect at this time. Not investigating the causes of good performance systemically does not allow teams to ask the tough questions that would help everyone expand their knowledge and understanding how the world works.
Wins have a huge impact on brand equity and sales. When we enter new markets it's important to acquire knowledge. As a newcomer, you acquire knowledge that will help you develop better systems and practices for the future. When a team focuses more on winning versus learning, this is when the pace of walking forward may fail. The data is not analyzed until something goes wrong. You don't necessarily look at the data when performance is considered well. It's crucial for a team to test everything before it can move forward sustainably.
So what are the impediments to learning?
Making Dangerous Attribution Errors - without data it's very difficult to analyze performance and potential road blocks. In business as in life, there are several factors that lead to success independent of the quality of a product or how a team is managed. Knowing that impediments like this exist allow for an organization or a person to be better prepared and to pivot accordingly to the environment in which they are in. This allows a person and or organization to to keep moving forward. Systemic after-actions reviews, Six Sigma, and experiments that test assumptions and what success and great performance is allows for growth and stability.
Overconfidence Bias Virus - We all need to be confident in our decision-making, but there is a point where it can truly harm us. Too much confidence can be a problem and with success there is a higher chance of that virus spreading like wild fire. Think about all the companies and programs that grow rapidly through mergers only to fall deeply after biting off more than they can chew. We've all been there.
Failing to Ask Why - this starts with the culture of the environment. When disaster hits, we all are more apt to asking why and how it happened. Success for some reason does not have that same auto-inquisitive response. Success usually is interpreted as the existing strategy and practices of work being the best and that the system and team have all the knowledge and information needed to keep moving forward. People are creatures of habit. Doctors tend to review mortality and morbidity reviews more closely, but patient recovery is not studied quite as closely. Why? Toyota, known for its system oriented learning model also focuses more on problem-solving versus success learning. This is evidenced by the recent recalls Toyota made due to over-confidence in higher sales and market share which blinded them to the point that operations compromised quality to achieve growth. This type of thinking and management strategy can be found in any industry.
Experience Shapes Learning - Learning is a very complex cognitive process that is necessary in the organizational process. People and organizations at any point in time hold their own bias due to culture, theories, models, principles, language, and guiding principles that guide behavioral decision making. Sometimes theories can be very sophisticated and developed from science of years of practical experience . Typically, they are quite informal due to unconscious bias as we may not be aware that these factors are truly swaying our decisions.
Learning allows us to update our theories. We don't know what we don't know. Through learning we can understand why things happen and why some decisions lead to specific outcomes - good & bad. It's important to make a conscious choice to challenge our assumptions and models. This typically happens when failure comes around, but not when times are successful. Failure provides a motivation to relearn and to rethink processes. Success for some reason does not disprove our theory. When people or organizations experience continuous growth and success, the reality is that while it may indicate that we are walking on the right path, we can't assume this without further testing, experimenting and reflection.
When people have too much power over others, research has shown this is a recipe for failure. Studies continually demonstrate that when a leader carries all the confidence and decision-making power, failure to discover critical information that other team members have is not heard or considered. Without proper processing and communication, missed opportunities to understand how the system truly works are not achieved. Through evaluation and quality improvement adjustment for growth and healthy success can be achieved.
How can we continue to learn in an effective way and promote innovation? Some best practices developed by Francesca Gino, Behavioral Scientist at Harvard University and Gary Pisano, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University are shared below:
1. Celebrate Success But Examine It
2. Institute Systemic Project Reviews
3. Use the Right Time Horizons (on time feedback is critical)
4. Recognize that Replication is not Learning
5. If It Isn't Broke, Experiment
"In racing, when you make a change, you only care whether or not it leads to superior performance. You tend to care less WHY something works. But over the long term you need to know WHY. This is the science." - Filippo Preziosi, General Director for the Ducati Corse Team