Susan Kistler on Learning From Failure
6 Comments · Posted by Susan Kistler in Organizational Learning and Evaluation Capacity Building
My name is Susan Kistler, and I am AEA’s Executive Director. I contribute each Saturday’s post to aea365.
I have been reading and thinking about learning from failure. For those of us who are data-lovers, who find security in information, it can be a challenge to overcome the tendency to want to collect all possible information, explore all feasible outcomes, before moving in a new direction. While I’ll never be one to dive in without testing the waters, I do want to go swimming a bit more often.
Rad Resource: Cannon and Edmondson’s 2004 paper Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail (Intelligently): How great organizations put failure to work to improve and innovate outlines three processes needed to fail intelligently – and positively:
- Identifying Failure: “The key organizational barrier to identifying failure has mostly to do with overcoming the inaccessibility of data that would be necessary to identify failures.” (p. 10)
- Analyzing and Discussing Failure: Create an open environment for discussing failures and overcome negative emotions associated with examining one’s own failures.
- Experimentation: Put new ideas to the test, gather comparative data, and embrace both those that succeed and those that fail as contributing to the ultimate success of an endeavor.
Key takeaways include:
- “Most managers underestimate the power of both technical and social barriers to organizational failure.” (p.3) Technical barriers include ensuring stakeholders have the know-how to use and analyze data to learn; organizational barriers include rewarding only success.
- We must pay attention to and learn from small failures to prevent larger failures.
- “Creating an environment in which people have an incentive, or at least do not have a disincentive, to identify and reveal failures is the job of leadership.” (p. 13)
- “Conducting an analysis of failure requires a spirit of inquiry and openness, patience, and a tolerance of ambiguity. However, most people admire and are rewarded for decisiveness, efficiency and action rather than for deep reflection and painstaking analysis.” (p. 14)
- “It is not necessary to make all [stakeholders] experts in experimental methodology, it is more important to know when help is needed from experts with sophisticated skills.” (p. 26)
For me, Cannon and Edmondson reaffirmed the value of formal and informal evaluation and its role in innovation. They made it clear that data-lovers are uniquely positioned to fail intelligently.
Rad Resource: Want to think further about learning from failure? Try Giloth and Gewirz (from Annie E Casey) Philanthropy and Mistakes: An Untapped Resource in the Foundation Review (free online), or Bumenthal’s blog post on four steps to failing well (Fail Small, Fail Publicly, Fail to Win, Fail Proudly), or Pond’s Embracing Micro-failure (Sarajoy is an aea365 contributor, AEA member, and social entrepreneur!).
Note that the above reflects my own opinions and not necessarily that of my employer, AEA.