A recent HBR post that asked if you were squandering your intelligent failures noted that instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal, which is all too true and a shame because you can often learn more from a failure than from a success (which sometimes, in CPG, is just pure luck and hard to learn from).
Furthermore, some scholars believe that learning from failure is crucial to organizational learning, because they demonstrate where assumptions are wrong, where future investment would be wasted, and where directions need to change. More succinctly, failures are about the only way in which an organization can re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way … but only if you take the time to learn from them!
According to some scholars, including Sim Sitkin (who is mentioned in the post), the most useful failures (from a learning perspective) is an intelligent failure, which he defines as a failure that results from an action that is:
- carefully planned (which allows you to identify when things go wrong),
- genuinely uncertain,
- modest in scale, and
- managed quickly.
Such an action plan not only prevents a catastrophe, but allows you to identify not only when something goes wrong, but why. If you take the time to figure out the way, and do so in a timely fashion, you can learn from the action and propagate that knowledge throughout the business, especially if you insure that underlying assumptions (which turned out to be wrong) are explicitly declared and that you can test results at well defined checkpoints. As such, should a failure occur, it is an excellent learning opportunity and should not be squandered!