Part of the Learing Maze series:
What we really need to do is to not only learn from failure, but frame everything we learn into a meaningful sustainable construct.
“The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.” So said Amy C. Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School. Edmondson continues her brilliant insight and research:
“Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it 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 widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations 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 product”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.
Executives I’ve interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work? “
We need a Culture of Learning
Edmondson continues “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. (See the sidebar “How Leaders Can Build a Psychologically Safe Environment.”) They should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened—not of “who did it”—when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.
In short, exceptional organizations are those that go beyond detecting and analyzing failures and try to generate intelligent ones for the express purpose of learning and innovating. It’s not that managers in these organizations enjoy failure. But they recognize it as a necessary by-product of experimentation. They also realize that they don’t have to do dramatic experiments with large budgets. Often a small pilot, a dry run of a new technique, or a simulation will suffice.”
Why seek failure?
Astro Teller is an entrepreneur, inventor, and author. He worked as the “Captain of Moonshots” for X -formerly called Google X.
He reveals the secret of their success. “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. The only way to get people to work on big, risky things — audacious ideas — and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first, [and you do this by making] that the path of least resistance for them.” And Google X does this by making it safe to fail.
According to Teller: “Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects”
This supports the observations of Tim Harford the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, “Google fails a lot, but they learn fast. Google values failure in the following ways:
1) Discerning why you failed and applying that to future projects; and
2) Speed to fail fast and early before investing more than necessary or damaging your brand.
They seek failure in order to learn!
Where to start?
Start with the most important question for any learning both as an individual and as a corporation. Why are we doing this?
The why question frames your learning, your analysis, your strategy and how you evaluate what you have learned.
The quest to understand the achievements of people and business is how Simon Sinek became a world famous thought leader when he gave a Ted Talk in 2014. His question was simple:
“Why have companies like Apple been able to achieve such extraordinary success, while others with the same resources have failed.”
According to Simon Sinek, the fundamental difference between the “Apples” of the world and everyone else is that they start with “why.”
To explain this concept, Sinek has developed what he calls the “Golden Circle”. The golden circle has three layers:
Why – This is the core belief of the business. It’s why the business exists.
How – This is how the business fulfills that core belief.
What – This is what the company does to fulfill that core belief.
Sounds simple, but what Sinek found is that most companies do their marketing and thinking backwards. They start with their “what” and then move to “how” they do it. Most of these companies neglect to even mention why they do what they do. More alarmingly, many of them don’t even know why they do what they do!
Over the last decade I have pondered this simple question:
How do successful companies and individuals learn, and what is their learning framework?
If many companies neglect the “why” question they probably neglect the virtue of learning as well. The “why” question should not only inspire passion, action, and innovation it should also inspire an attitude and culture of learning. Every demand on a business from staying off competition to the need for disruptive innovation comes best through intellectually honest learning. This question led me to propose that effective, honest and active learning starts with the “why” question, which frames all actions and intents toward learning. This “why” question become a north star for a company and for an individual.
This reframing toward learning, rather than building something first, is a powerful concept. In modern terms, a learning culture occurs when failure is reframed into learning opportunities and gives us a Reason for Learning.
The magic of aviation innovation for the Wright brothers came through their deep analysis of how to control their flying machine when airborne. We now called these flight controls i.e. flaps and rudders in modern aircraft, however this concept was not known at the time. This obsession with how to control flight, like birds, was key to their success. Why they wanted to solve this problem was the foundation of all motivation.
Learning through the lens of analysis while avoiding learning traps was key to their discovery process. According to Nail it then Scale it, there are four learning traps that often derail intellectually honest learning: To avoid these you must become cognizant of them how they affect your decision process.
The traps are:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This might explain the failure of all attempted flights up this point in history.
Motivation bias is a close cousin to confirmation bias but differs as motivations filter all information and blinds you to certain realties. Tim Harford called this chasing your losses and doubling down when you know your failing. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.
Overconfidence is the twin to confidence. It takes confidence to even play the entrepreneurial game, however overconfidence can also blind you. Furr and Ahlstrom caution that you don’t confuse determination with overconfidence.
Compatibility traps explores our myopic viewpoint of the world. It is often manifests in the business world by asking this convention wisdom question: “what can we build that people will buy.” Instead you should ask “what do people want to buy?” Or “what problems do my customer have that I can’t solve?” Sometimes the solution is outside of our box of compatibility, reason, and comfort.
The heart of this analysis Learning Frame is to acquire a posture of fact based data driven learning.
“Every time the Wright brothers would go out, they would have to take 5 sets of parts, because that’s how many times they would crash before they came home for supper.”
They didn’t expect success leaping from tall buildings, bridges or mountain slope, which can now be seen as ridiculous attempts but at the time seemed like rational product tests for those who didn’t frame their innovation with learning.
At the early stages of a new product the strategy should be to learn, not produce. Yes, the market rewards execution not ideas, however too often the strategy of a new venture is build a business plan or business models or even products instead of learning real market problems.
To win you need to reframe your strategy to develop an attitude of learning.
“At the core, entrepreneurs must develop an attitude of learning—brutally honest learning. By this we mean you need to learn how to seek and really receive feedback, because ultimately feedback opens the door to developing a product or solution that customers really need rather than just what the entrepreneur imagines that customers need. Furthermore, down the road, as the founder, you will set the culture of your organization, and creating a learning culture leads to a great organization rather than a one-hit wonder. But how do you develop this attitude of honest learning? The first step, which we have already described, is to recognize the learning traps discussed above. The second step is to develop an attitude of learning that has four basic components: 1) becoming an expert novice, 2) reframing the learning purpose, 3) real-time feedback, and 4) data-driven perspectives.”
The virtue of evaluation should stand on its own but for the purposes of this learning framework feedback works to refine your learning not just the stale commentary on your process, product or features. Every flailed flight was evaluated by the Wright brothers. They failed in new and glorious ways, but they didn’t repeat the same failure.
Failure is often manifest through feedback but in reality that feedback is the roadmap to success if you can only learn from it.
Significant amounts of real-time feedback help correct overconfidence, increase pattern recognition and help us see the truth. The truth is the product of brutally honest learning.
Learning should always start with the “why” and effective innovation occurs as organizations and individuals work within the constructs of a Learning Frame.
Imagine the next time an executive reads a book and get jazzed to change your company and culture in order to win. You should ask, where does this new information, advice, strategy or mantra fit into my Learning Frame or better yet, the Learning Frame of our company.
Learn more about Learning Frames
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