Leadership 2020 Newsletter: Strategies for Learning from Failure

The wisdom of ‘learning from failure’ is essentially incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. But why? For many, this gap is not due to a lack of commitment to learning but due to thinking about failure the wrong way.

Most people believe that failure is bad. (Of course, it is!) But they also believe that learning from failure is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization.

These approaches are often misguided. First, failure is not always bad. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward—the need for context-specific learning strategies is often underappreciated.

Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“the clients didn’t understand our program”). That means worrying less about blame and moving past cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of what success really is.

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