Most of the time, they offer organizations valuable learning experiences — which, if properly assessed and acted on, have the potential to bring significant long-term value to organizational performance.
However, according to Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, most organizations improperly use failure as a learning tool because they get caught up in what she calls the “blame game.”
The misconception organizations have about failure, according to Edmondson’s article “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” published in April 2011 in the Harvard Business Review, is rooted in the perception that failure and the high standards of organizational performance cannot co-exist. This is not the case.
Not all failures are created equal, she wrote, and perfection at all times is an unrealistic and potentially unnerving cloud of expectation for an organization’s culture to function under. Doing so could come at the expense of potential business lessons that certain failures can teach.
Instead, leaders should interpret failures on a spectrum and assess which are more blameworthy and which are healthy for business development. In the article Edmondson outlined a spectrum of reasons for failure from those that are most blameworthy to the most praiseworthy.
The reasons for failure, from most to least blameworthy, include:
• Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
• Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.
• Lack of ability: An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute the job.
• Process inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.
• Task challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
• Process complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
• Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesirable results.
• Hypothesis testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or design will succeed fails instead.
• Exploratory testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesirable result.
“When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in the single digits — perhaps 2 percent to 5 percent,” Edmondson wrote. “But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70 percent to 90 percent. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported, and their lessons are lost.”