Amy Edmondson on How to Really Learn From Failure and Mistakes


The main recurring theme in the “My Favorite Mistake” podcast series is learning from mistakes. I've been trying to do more reading on this topic recently.

Here's a 2011 HBR article by Prof. Amy Edmondson:

Strategies for Learning from Failure

First, here is my podcast with her from almost a year ago:

The article begins:

“The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.”

Why is this learning rare? It's not a lack of commitment to learning, Edmondson writes… it's:

“Those managers were thinking about failure the wrong way.”

Edmondson writes that they too often respond to failure incorrectly, by falling back on superficial explanations (procedure wasn't followed) or by exhorting people to not make the same mistake again. That reminds me of Dr. Deming's point that leaders need to:

“Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity.”

As we discussed in our podcast, Edmondson points to psychological safety as a must-have. We have to eliminate blame and fear if we want to have organizational learning. That's another Deming point on:

“Drive out fear.”

Edmondson writes that a culture of fear prevents people from admitting failures or mistakes:

“When I ask executives to… estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits–perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.”

We can't have “lessons learned” if there's no opportunity to learn. I appreciate that my guests are willing to admit mistakes. Many of them have commented that talking through what happened allowed them to reflect on the mistake… and they learned more than if they had never really talked about it.

Edmondson asks why the analysis of mistakes or failures is often “shortchanged” and answers it:

“Because examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem. Left to our own devices, most of us will speed through or avoid failure analysis altogether. Another reason is that analyzing organizational failures requires inquiry and openness, patience, and a tolerance for causal ambiguity. Yet managers typically admire and are rewarded for decisiveness, efficiency, and action–not thoughtful reflection. That is why the right culture is so important.”

Edmondson explains the cognitive errors that lead us to often blame others instead of taking responsibility for our actions.

I try to lead by example by being open about making mistakes. My guests do the same and I always try to thank them for sharing their mistake… asking questions instead of being judgmental.

How can we help create that culture in our workplaces in 2021?

I hope you'll check out the article, especially Edmondson's discussion of three types of work, “Routine, complex, and frontier.” Many of the mistakes discussed by my guests were decisions they made at some sort of frontier. They couldn't necessarily know what the right answer is… they'd have to experiment, reflect, and learn.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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