Never Waste a Good Failure: Barriers to Learning (Part 1)

By Allison Catalano, Jon Fisher & Heidi Kretser | March 17, 2021

Credit ©Jeff Reed 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Everybody makes mistakes, and we’ve all been involved in projects that don’t go entirely according to plan. But it’s not uncommon to move quickly from one project to the next without taking time to reflect on how things went — and why. It is especially hard to discuss failure because, let’s face it, talking about failure isn’t easy or fun.

Yet research (Sitkin 1992, Mittelstaedt 2005, Madsen and Desai 2010) shows that we can all learn more from failure than success. And if we don’t make time to reflect on what went wrong, we miss a valuable opportunity to turn a past failure into a future success.

To better understand why people fail to learn from failure and what can be done about it, the three of us hosted a workshop for the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in July 2020.

We shared some science, had a lively panel discussion, and encouraged participants to brainstorm and share their experiences and perspectives on what encourages learning from failure — and what stands in the way of doing so.

Now, in a two-part blog series, we’ll share these insights in the hopes of: 1) spurring further conversations; 2) contributing to shifting the culture in conservation toward normalizing discussions of failure; and 3) helping us all realize that we’re not alone when it comes to failing!

“If we don’t make time to reflect on what went wrong, we miss a valuable opportunity to turn a past failure into a future success.”

In this first blog, we’ll talk about the barriers discussed by workshop participants. Part 2 will cover ideas that participants identified to improve learning from failure.

We asked participants, “What individual and organizational factors discourage learning from failure in conservation?” Responses relating to individual barriers fell into six broad categories.

Those categories are listed here from most to least frequently mentioned:

1. Emotional aspects, including what some participants called “fear of looking dumb or incompetent”; fear of disappointing others; fear of being judged by others; feelings of shame; and feelings of inadequacy that reinforce self-doubt to the point of being afraid of being exposed as a ‘fraud,’ even though that is not the case.

2. Concern about negative career impacts, especially for people who are at early stages in their careers or who identify as members of minority groups.

3. Concern about losing funding.

4. Tendency to minimize or ignore failure, especially by people who have big egos.

5. Lack of time within individual workdays or work plans to pause and reflect on disappointing project outcomes. Although successes are celebrated, our individual egos push each of us to sweep failures under the rug rather than admit failure and devote time to understanding what went wrong.

6. Fear that aside from personal failings, participants could be partially responsible for real-world consequences to people and nature. Participants noted that especially when failure or success isn’t entirely in our control, it can sometimes be easier to say we’re doing our part or dismiss failures as situational instead of engaging in the challenging work of analyzing failures and learning how we can best achieve shared goals.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s not uncommon to move quickly from one project to the next without taking time to reflect on how things went — and why.”

Responses having more to do with other people in an organization and/or the organization as a whole are sorted into five different categories (again from most to least frequently mentioned)

1. Fear of losing funding to competitor organizations and/or risking the appearance of incompetence by being more transparent about failure; desire to avoid being criticized by competitor organizations when you admit failure.

2. Lack of time, resources, and encouragement across the organization for staff to evaluate and learn from successes and failures that are needed for continuous improvement.

3. An organizational culture in which failure is punished, blame is apportioned, and reported success is rewarded. Such a culture creates an incentive to hide or minimize failures, exaggerate successes, and avoid rigorous measurement, which may produce unwelcome surprises. Additionally, if failure is not allowed, experimenting is discouraged and new solutions are not uncovered.

4. An organizational emphasis on short-term rather than long-term timelines. To keep funding flowing, the organization tends to gravitate toward working on low-hanging fruit that can show quick and successful results — leading to additional funding and new marketing opportunities.

5. The presence of a toxic work culture (participants specifically mentioned a work culture that emphasizes self-promotion over self-reflection). For productive learning from failure, trust is critical in creating open dialogue and sharing. Employees struggle to learn from failure in workplace environments that lack psychological safety, where they don’t feel comfortable speaking up.

Have you experienced any of these individual or organizational barriers? Do you face any that we didn’t list? What do you do to try to overcome them? Please drop a note in the comments section so we can learn from you!

In the next blog post, we’ll share what participants thought were important factors that enabled learning from failure. Stay tuned!

Allison Catalano is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College of London; Jon Fisher is Conservation Science Officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts; Heidi Kretser is Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator, WCS North America.

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References

Madsen, Peter M., and Vinit Desai. 2010. “Failing to Learn? The Effects of Failure and Success on Organizational Learning in the Global Orbital Launch Vehicle Industry.” Academy of Management Journal 53, no. 3: 451–476.

Mittelstaedt, Robert E. 2005. Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal? Avoiding the Chain of Mistakes That Can Destroy. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Sitkin, Sim B. 1992. “Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses.” Research in Organizational Behavior 14: 231–266.

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