How to Communicate Failure to your Team

Communication 101:

There is the message you think you are giving and the other one that people are receiving. When communicating failure or better yet, what you have learned from failure, the emotionally intelligent communicator should frame everything from the point of view of his or her listener (the receiver of the message). As a leader, here a few critical questions to consider when crafting that message to your team:

  • What does the failure mean for the individual?
  • What does the learning from failure mean to individual contributors?
  • What does the failure mean for everyone collectivity?
  • What is specifically needed from each person to learn from the failure and pivot to reach a new goal?

The hard part is that it takes more time to think about all of these angles and to craft the right message.
It is my hypothesis that people learn best from failure if the communication is correlated to each person’s Learning Frame.
What is a Learning Frame? All of us are constantly and automatically framing all situational environments around us. This framing effect is filtered by mindset and experience. We tend to only focus on the surface understanding of these events and as such we tend to be blind to the effects of our cognitive frames on our interpretation of what we see, feel or how we act upon those events. Indeed, these frames shape our behavior, choices and reactions to failure.
As a concept, Learning Frames on the surface seems easy to understand, “it is how we frame learning.” Nevertheless, like most multifaceted concepts the details define meaning, intent and purpose. For example, terrorism, prejudice and liberalism are generally understood concepts on the surface, but if you list out the critical and variable attributes of these concepts you will soon understand how people frame meaning based on their experiences, which can render the meaning of these concepts very differently based upon who you are talking to. This framing can distort assumed understanding between communicator and receiver.
We all have Learning Frames. Some areas of the frame are distorted because of mindset but in general terms when you need to learn something a Learning Frame looks like this:

Let me illustrate how framing failure and learning in this construct renders meaning and accelerated outcomes:
In Amy Edmondson’s book “Teaming”, she shows that organizations thrive, or fail to thrive, based on how well the small groups within those organizations work [And how teams learn from failure].
“The adoption of the new technology provided an ideal laboratory for rigorously studying how teams learn and why some learn faster than others We collected detailed data on 660 patients who underwent minimally invasive cardiac surgery at the 16 medical centers, beginning with each team’s first such operation.
16 teams were studied while they adopted this demanding new heart surgery procedure called “minimally invasive cardiac surgery” (MICS).
The cardiac surgery technology we studied is a modification of conventional cardiac surgery, but it requires the surgical team to take a radical new approach to working together.
The standard cardiac operation has three major phases: opening the chest, stopping the heart, and placing the patient on a heart-lung bypass machine; repairing or replacing damaged coronary arteries or valves; and weaning the patient from bypass and closing the chest wound. The minimally invasive technology, adopted by more than 100 hospitals beginning in the late 1990s, provides an alternative way to gain access to the heart. Instead of cutting through the breastbone, the surgeon uses special equipment to work on the heart through an incision between the ribs.
The small size of the incision changes open-heart surgery in several ways. For one thing, the surgeon has to operate in a severely restricted space. For another, the tubes that connect the patient to the bypass machine must be threaded through an artery and vein in the groin instead of being inserted directly into the heart through the incision. And a tiny catheter with a deflated balloon must be threaded into the aorta, the body’s main artery, and the balloon inflated to act as an internal clamp. In conventional cardiac surgery, the aorta is blocked off with external clamps inserted into the open chest.
The placement of the internal clamp is an example of the greater coordination among team members required by the new procedure. Using ultrasound, the anesthesiologist works carefully with the surgeon to monitor the path of the balloon as it is inserted, because the surgeon can’t see or feel the catheter. Correct placement is crucial, and the tolerances on balloon location are extremely low. Once the balloon clamp is in position, team members, including the nurse and the perfusionist, must monitor it to be sure it stays in place. “The pressures have to be monitored on the balloon constantly,” said one nurse we interviewed. “The communication with perfusion is critical. When I read the training manual, I couldn’t believe it. It was so different from standard cases.”
“Perhaps it isn’t surprising that adoption of the procedure—by all of the teams—took longer than expected. The company that developed the technology estimated that it would take surgical teams about eight operations before they were able to perform the new procedure in the same amount of time as conventional surgery. But for even the fastest-learning teams in our study, the number was closer to 40.”
Edmondson concludes: “We found that success in learning came down to the way teams were put together and how they drew on their experiences—in other words, on the teams’ design and management. Teams that learned the new procedure most quickly shared three essential characteristics. They were designed for learning; their leaders framed the challenge in such a way that team members were highly motivated to learn; and the leaders’ behavior created an environment of psychological safety that fostered communication and innovation.”
To further deconstruct what happened in this observation let me place the major events within a Learning Frame:

Better recovery time for patients “minimally invasive” in the 1990’s this was a competitive advantage

Needed to change the way they communicated and behaved during procedure

Surgeon wore a head camera, which allowed the team to see what was going on
Scheduled the first six MICS cases in the same week
The same team would be together on the first fifteen cases

Encouraged questions about what surgeon was doing and why
Team practiced diligently: surgeon put the focus on practice and set up the routines to allow the maximum chances to learn and improve.The Learning goal and learning mindset was: “[We] pictured MICS as something that would be difficult at first but would get easier over time,”

When communicating the lessons learned from failure map your message to your listeners Learning Frame. Follow this outline:

  1. Describe the Reason for failure
  2. Talk about how and when you knew things were going wrong -objective analysis
  3. Describe your plan or strategy to learn from this failure
  4. And lastly talk how you will evaluate success and failure going forward

In order to make permanent changes consider these steps:
Step 1. Translate outcome of a failure into one or many Learning goals
Step 2. Create a Learning frame for each at an individual or organizational level
Step 3. Work the frame and create new frames to learn more things = continuous improvement

Learning Frames is simple yet powerful cognitive alignment models that help you develop not only an attitude of learning and a growth mindset, but a desire for brutal intellectual honest learning that helps you gather feedback so that you can learn from failure.

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