Article | Harvard Business Review | April 2011

Strategies for Learning from Failure

by Amy C. Edmondson

Abstract

Many executives believe that all failure is bad (although it usually provides lessons)--and that learning from it is pretty straightforward. The author, a professor at Harvard Business School, thinks both beliefs are misguided. In organizational life, she says, some failures are inevitable and some are even good. And successful learning from failure is not simple: It requires context-specific strategies. But first leaders must understand how the blame game gets in the way and must work to create an organizational culture in which employees feel safe admitting or reporting on failure. Failures fall into three categories: preventable ones in predictable operations, which usually involve deviations from spec; unavoidable ones in complex systems, which may arise from unique combinations of needs, people, and problems; and intelligent ones at the frontier, where "good" failures occur quickly and on a small scale, providing the most valuable information. Strong leadership can build a learning culture--one in which failures large and small are consistently reported and deeply analyzed, and opportunities to experiment are proactively sought. Executives commonly and understandably worry that taking an understanding stance on failure will create an "anything goes" work environment. They should instead recognize that failure is inevitable in today's complex work organizations.

Keywords: Learning; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Leadership; Business Processes; Organizational Culture; Failure; Opportunities;

Citation:

Edmondson, Amy C. "Strategies for Learning from Failure." Harvard Business Review 89, no. 4 (April 2011).