Promoting a Culture of Experimentation and Learning

In several previous posts, we discussed the concept of embracing failure. Failure is a normal part of life and shouldn’t necessarily be treated as an existential catastrophe, but it’s important to learn from it to avoid making the same mistakes.


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Previously, we talked about specific factors that lead to failure and steps for learning from that failure, and here, we’ll look at the bigger picture: how to promote a culture of experimentation and learning.

Don’t Stigmatize Failure

Although certain new, experimental ventures are understandably more prone to failure, many leaders still have a fear of failing.
“The human tendency to hope for the best and try to avoid failure at all costs gets in the way, and organizational hierarchies exacerbate it,” says Amy C. Edmondson, author and Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “As a result, failing R&D projects are often kept going much longer than is scientifically rational or economically prudent. We throw good money after bad, praying that we’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

Think in Terms of ‘What Happened,’ not ‘Who Did It’

Although there may be times when failure is unacceptable and someone needs to be held accountable, it’s important not to play the blame game. Businesses need to focus on what happened instead of who did it.

Keep Looking for Failures

Once you’ve gotten to a place where failure isn’t seen as a cardinal sin, start making a concerted effort to look for it wherever it may be, and remember that every failure can be a learning experience.
“Although many methods of surfacing current and pending failures exist, they are grossly underutilized,” says Edmondson. “Total Quality Management and soliciting feedback from customers are well-known techniques for bringing to light failures in routine operations. High-reliability-organization (HRO) practices help prevent catastrophic failures in complex systems like nuclear power plants through early detection.”
Failures are a reality for any industry, company, and individual, but what sets truly successful companies apart is not whether they fail from time to time but rather how they respond to, learn from, and grow from that failure.