Learning From Failure is Important, but Hard

HBS has a good piece about analyzing failure.

It hardly needs to be said that organizations cannot learn from failures if people do not discuss and analyze them. Yet this remains an important insight. The learning that is potentially available may not be realized unless thoughtful analysis and discussion of failure occurs. For example, for Kaiser [Permanente's] Dr. [Kim] Adcock, it is not enough just to know that a particular physician is making more than the acceptable number of errors [in misread x-rays]. Unless deeper analysis of the nature of the radiologists' errors is conducted, it is difficult to learn what needs to be corrected. On a larger scale, the U.S. Army is known for conducting After Action Reviews that enable participants to analyze, discuss, and learn from both the successes and failures of a variety of military initiatives. Similarly, hospitals use "Morbidity and Mortality" (M&M) conferences (in which physicians convene to discuss significant mistakes or unexpected deaths) as a forum for identifying, discussing, and learning from failures. This analysis can only be effective if people speak up openly about what they know and if others listen, enabling a new understanding of what happened to emerge in the assembled group. Many of these vehicles for analysis only address substantial failures, however, rather than identifying and learning from smaller ones.

The problem is that trying to analyze a failure too often turns into a cover-your-own-ass blame game. It shouldn't. But for some reason many people (actually, most people, in my experience) don't deal with failure well. I think that is one reason some people don't try in the first place – you can't fail if you don't try. Failure teaches as much, even more sometimes, than success does.

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It's hard to accept and acknowledge failure, even when we believe it doesn't matter and that we have learned from it. Human nature is to desire success. I think the world is too complex though, and some part of success and failure is luck (and a little timing). If you come to see both your successes and failures as having a small component of randomness to them, it becomes easier to deal with.

Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you going to do now and do it.
–William Durant founder of General Motors

Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure.
–Jack Lemmon

Failure? I never encountered it. All I ever met were temporary setbacks.
–Dottie Walters

Don't think of it as failure. Think of it as time-released success.
–rob_businessert Orben

Trying is the first step towards failure
–Homer Simpson

If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.
–Thomas Watson, Sr Founder of IBM

It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all. — Edward de Bono

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing. — George Bernard Shaw