Strategies for Learning from Failure

11/26/2015 – I am taking a course on entrepreneurial behaviour and practices and one of our key seminars has been entirely focussed on failure – imagine 8 days to explore all facets of and relationships to failure, with people from diverse backgrounds, organizations and cultures from throughout the world! I have loved it as it has helped me uncover and explore my own definitions and fears about failure (lots) and exposed me to new ways of thinking about and embracing failure as part of strong and innovative practice. One of the articles we reviewed is by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, entitled, Strategies for Learning From Failure (April 2011). I thought it was particularly beneficial and relevant to our sector. She noted that, despite being told that ‘innovation and failure is good’ many of us have been conditioned since childhood to avoid making a mistake and failing at all costs. This sets up a dynamic tension between what we are told is necessary in the workplace (e.g., think outside the box, innovate, test out new ideas, fail, learn) and what we have been told for most of our lives (e.g., don’t mess up).

She offers a more nuanced understanding of failure, that lines up well with the 2020 teachings on the Cynefin framework. With problems that are simple or complicated – what she calls predictable or knowable problems – failure should be preventable and avoidable and when it does show up it could be due to deviant behaviour (someone doesn’t want to follow accepted practices) but more likely due to inattention, lack of ability or training, process inadequacy or a task challenge (e.g. the task is simply too much to expect someone or a group to complete with the available resources). Leaders and managers need to act to prevent these types of failures.

On the other hand, when we face complex challenges where there is a high degree of uncertainty and we have not encountered the situation before, failures are often unavoidable – “system failure is a perpetual risk”. Our response should be one of trying to prevent more significant or “consequential” failures by attending to small process failures: “To consider them bad is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive. Avoiding consequential failures means rapidly identifying and correcting small failures.” She strongly encourages leaders to create an environment in which people can comfortably raise concerns and identify the small errors that can be addressed before the whole system is compromised

Edmondson also describes a third type of failure that occurs within the complex domain: “intelligent failures at the frontier”. I love this idea of intelligent failures – where experimentation is necessary and the “answers aren’t knowable in advance because this exact situation hasn’t been encountered before”. Here she suggests small-scale tests to see what might work and continual iteration and improvement – NOT large scale pilot projects! Failure here is “praiseworthy” as it serves learning and development.

Her description of “the blame game” was particularly relevant to our sector where, due to the high risks associated with some failures there is often intense media and public scrutiny aimed at placing blame on individuals or organizations. She would suggest that this generates a widespread lack of “psychological safety” that shuts down innovation and experimentation due to fear of failure – even when the risks are minimal or the benefits of new approaches could be significant. The five elements that Edmondson suggests leaders should cultivate in order to contribute to a psychologically safe environment that can prevent failure where appropriate, and be intelligent and learn from failures in the complex domain, include:

  • Frame the work accurately – what kinds of failures can be expected and how they will be worked through helps to ‘detoxify’ failure;
  • Embrace messengers of bad news, questions, concerns or mistakes;
  • Acknowledge limits – “be open about what you don’t know. Mistakes you have made, and what you can’t get done alone will encourage others to do the same”;
  • Invite participation – “ask for observations and ideas and create opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures and promote intelligent experiments. Inviting participation helps to defuse resistance and defensiveness”;
  • Set boundaries and hold people accountable.

You can gain access to the full article here: and signing into the Harvard Business Review. You can view online or get up to five free articles to download. The 12-minute interview with Amy is also available at this site and offers a good summary.

You may want to consider the following questions about ‘failure’:

  • What is your attitude or approach towards failure?
  • Are all failures equally ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
  • Where is a greater openness to failure and the consequent learning, needed in your own practice?

2020 Reflections – October Alumni Gathering

The Alumni gathering and social impact summit was designed by a small group of graduates and participants and we are grateful to them for their thoughtful ideas and contributions that made the event a success: Rebecca Ataya, Sheila Best, Maria Cargnelli, Connie Epp, Dayna Long, Lynne Mansell, Maureen Mackell, Wedlidi Speck and Annemarie Travers. The event brought together 80 people, drawn from every one of the eight cohorts we have hosted. We also welcomed three guests who served as ‘witnesses’ to the process and learning. Thanks to Stacie Prescott from Options Community Services (and one of the original 2020 advisors), Trilby Smith from Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change initiative and Al Etmanski, social innovator.

Unfortunately our live stream coverage to 25 additional registrants did not work due to problems with the company we retained to provide this service. We are so sorry that this did not work and are now trying to salvage recordings from Al Etmanski’ s presentation to at least share this teaching. Apologies to those who tried to make sense of the live stream!

We had three intentions for the gathering: connection, learning and action:

  • Connect people across cohorts into a broader 2020 community.
  • Provide people with some tangible learnings, skills, practices that will enhance or affirm their leadership toolkit, and with a vision/inspiration and strategies for broader systems change.
  • Engage people in collective work for social impact and build the movement.

To support this, we convened an array of world café discussions, knowledge ‘camps’ and action tables. Over the next week we will complete the proceedings and share this broadly with the broader 2020 community. A number of people wanted to continue connecting to explore ways to work together and differently to bring about positive social impacts in areas that are important to them. The intention here is to work within our spheres of influence and try out small probes that will help us identify ways to – for example – embed trauma informed practice in our work, re-imagine foster care, extend 2020 opportunities to youth leaders, etc. We hope to support the leadership movement by living into the 6 patterns that Al Etmanski referenced in his talk at the gathering and that are detailed in his book Impact (see communiqué 7 for a summary). More next week!

2020 Reflections – Bittersweet endings

We have had an extraordinary 6 weeks of 2020 learning and connection. In October the Blended 3 and 4 cohorts completed their final residencies and graduated in style. The Blended 5 cohort launched in early November, and we also hosted our first Alumni gathering and social impact summit on October 21-22.

The ‘endings’ of cohorts are always bittersweet. It is an honour for the design and hosting team to see how people reconnect in the final residency and to bear witness to what has happened for them over the 10 months of learning. Sometimes the shifts are significant and obvious – new roles and jobs, new communities served, new learning and degree programs initiated, etc. Just as important however, are the less obvious shifts, such as increased confidence and belief in self as a ‘leader’, new perspectives and openness, new and positive ways of working and supporting others, volunteering for special projects and committees, trying out new ideas, failing in something and recovering, revitalized connections, improved self care and wellness, greater mindfulness, etc. These shifts speak to the three pillars of great leadership: it is personal, participatory and practice-based. Participants continually affirm through their actions that all three domains matter and that the journey is ongoing.

As much as we love the second residencies, it is also sad to end this part of the program, and the bi-weekly connections with such amazing leaders in our field. In some ways we are just beginning the work together – as we explore social impact and changemaking in the final residency it feels like we have to keep going. As we build our graduate community and create cross-cohort connections I do hope that each of you that have graduated (recently and in the past cohorts) can make the space in your schedules to stay connected and to “ask for what you need and offer what you can” from this broader community.