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Learning From Failure

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet note businesses that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This gap is not due to a lack of commitment to learning. Note professionals I’ve consulted with over the years genuinely want to help their business learn from failures to improve future performance. In some cases they had devoted many hours to after-action reviews, postmortems, and the like. But time after time I saw that these painstaking efforts led to no real change. The reason: those individuals were thinking about failure the wrong way.

Most note professionals I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Reflect on what they did wrong and resolve to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In the note business it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated.

Note professionals need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new service”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. We can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.

The Blame Game – Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few note professionals have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.

A culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can—and in some organizational contexts must—coexist with high standards for performance. To understand why, look at this list of “Reasons for Failure,” which lists causes ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation.

  • Deviance
  • Inattention
  • Lack of Ability
  • Process Inadequacy
  • Task Challenge

  • Process Complexity
  • Uncertainty
  • Hypothesis Testing
  • Exploratory Testing

Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate deviance, first on the list, obviously warrants blame. But inattention might not. If it results from a lack of effort, perhaps it’s blameworthy. But if it results from fatigue near the end of an overly long work day, the situation is more at fault. As we go down the list, it gets more and more difficult to find blameworthy acts. In fact, a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.

When I ask note professionals to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their business are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures are not attended to and their lessons are lost.

Not All Failures Are Created Equal – A sophisticated understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help to avoid the blame game and institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in a note business, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.

Remember, success demands action and when you take action failures will occur from time to time. Learning from our failures is key to survival and growth in the note business. Keep on marketing, it’s going to work! TWITA! (That’s What I’m Talking About!)

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