Who’s Afraid of (Learning From) Failure?

Disappointed soccer player walks across field while opposing team celebrates success in background

Different people react to failure in different ways, most of them unhelpful.  Some get angry, others despair; some deny it, others obsess. It’s rare for anyone to honestly and rationally reflect on their own mistakes – which is a shame, as analyzing past failures can help us succeed in the future.

We encourage clients to hold “retrospective” meetings at the end of projects, to discuss and document lessons learned, but these can be difficult if the project was less than successful.

Here are some tips for keeping retrospectives positive, even when the project itself was not:

  • Separate “failure” from “fault”: It can be difficult to suppress the human tendency to criticize and blame others, so make it clear that retrospectives are not about assessing anyone’s performance.  Rather, the focus should be on how the organization, collectively, can avoid problems in the future.

  • Learn to read the signs: Were the problems that your team encountered foreseeable?   Were foul-ups the result of misjudgment? Miscommunication? Unrealistic projections and false assumptions?   

    Some problems are the inevitable result of engaging with complex, chaotic and rapidly changing situations.  Take advantage of “20/20 hindsight” and identify the root causes of problems (keeping in mind that most problems have more than one cause).  

    Are there different metrics and indicators you should be monitoring?  Would consulting a wider range of people in the planning process have helped?   Did you pause to reevaluate and course-correct often enough?

  • Don’t discourage experimentation: Every so often, teams will encounter new and unfamiliar problems or old problems for which no proven solution exists.  In these cases, some people will be inclined to retreat, others will blindly continue doing what they normally do, and a few will start brainstorming wild ideas.   

    If the team (or the boss) decides to take a chance on an innovative approach, then everyone needs to accept the possibility that it might not work.  When experiments fail, ask: did the team do enough research before proceeding? Did the organization do all it could to support the plan? Would it be worthwhile to try the plan again – with modifications – next time you encounter a similar problem?

  • Don’t excuse incompetence: None of this is to say that people should not be held accountable for performance.  While there may be larger forces involved, many problems are the direct result of poor execution or poor judgment by individuals. 

    However, questions of individual responsibility fall outside the scope of a retrospective discussion.  That’s what individual performance reviews are for.

  • Focus on the future: Again, emphasize that the goal is to find solutions going forward, not to complain or retroactively assign blame.  Ultimately, the point of examining failures is to move beyond them, on your journey to success.

If you are interested in strategies to help your teams learn from experience, feel free to contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.


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