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Susan Kistler on Learning From Failure

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:

  1. 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)
  2. Analyzing and Discussing Failure: Create an open environment for discussing failures and overcome negative emotions associated with examining one’s own failures.
  3. 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.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org.

6 thoughts on “Susan Kistler on Learning From Failure”

  1. Excellent advice. The main issue is cultural, and in the public service especially it is difficult to celebrate failure. In a previous job, I started the concept of a ‘post-mortem’ after each project was completed, the aim being to report honestly on what went right and how to consolidate it; and what went wrong and how to prevent it. The project team reported in seminar format to the organisational leadership, plus a colleague (another manager who had not been on the project). I thought it was a productive process, but subsequently other managers were more defensive about their projects and the pattern of doing it regularly and quickly after each project slipped by the wayside. Culture (=leadership) was not fully supportive.

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  3. This is so powerful and needed at the moment. As the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors hunger to ‘get it right’, there also needs to be space and data to learn about what didn’t work and I think even moreso what did, how and why.

    I also wonder what are the parameters of failure if one intends to try again. Is that not just learning? That is not to day that just attempting equals success but wondering about our frame.

  4. Susan,

    Great insights. I, too, have a passion for organizational learning and surrounding issues of failure. I think the key take-home point is creating a culture of openness, honesty, and experimentation. The first two points are needed so that people actually “fess-up” to their mistakes so that organizations can learn from them (think of how many mistakes are swept under the rug). The latter point is needed so that organizations can, systematically, learn what works and what doesn’t. There are companies, like Xerox and 3M, who actually have designated periods of the day for “experiments”. Talk about innovative cultures!

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