Learning from Failure

Ran into this wonderful article on learning from failure by HBS professor Amy Edmondson:

Strategies for Learning from Failure

For many of us, failure often has a negative association. Mostly because from a very early age, failure is so tightly coupled in our minds with fault — admitting failure also means taking the blame.

And yet, in the business world, success almost always requires some level of risk taking — a situation in which failure is an inherently plausible option.

How can we tell “good” failure from “bad” failure, so we can encourage the former and discourage the latter?

Amy suggests a taxonomy of failures ranging from the blameworthy to the praiseworthy:

  1. Deviance — an individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice
  2. Inattention — an individual inadvertently deviates from specification
  3. Lack of ability — an individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute a job
  4. Process inadequacy — a competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process
  5. Task challenge — an individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time
  6. Process complexity — a process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions
  7. Uncertainty — a lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produces undesired results
  8. Hypothesis testing — an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or design will succeed fails
  9. Exploratory testing — an experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result

More broadly, failure requires a different reaction in three major domains:

  1. Blameworthy: preventable failures in predictable operations (#1–5)
  2. Neutral: unavoidable failures in complex systems (#6–7)
  3. Praiseworthy: intelligent failures at the frontier (#8–9)