Mistakes happen in business all the time, but most people have a powerful motivation to try to cover up their errors as much as possible. However, not recognizing and learning from failures might be the most dangerous failure of all because it means the problem is likely to occur again. This means that, even though it might be hard to admit it, doing the right thing often means admitting when you’ve done the wrong thing. Most people would say that we have an ethical obligation to learn from mistakes, but how can we do that? In a recent special issue in Harvard Business Review on failures, experts argued that learning from mistakes relies on several strategies, which include:
- Heed pressure. High pressure often provokes faulty thinking. BP faced enormous pressure from cost overruns—roughly $1 million a day—in its deepwater oil explorations. This led its managers to miss warning signs that led to the catastrophic explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Similar time and cost pressures precipitated the ill-fated Challenger and Columbia space shuttle launches. In high-pressure situations, ask yourself, “If I had more time and resources, would I make the same decision?”
- Recognize that failure is not always bad. Most of us would agree that we have learned more in life from our mistakes than from our successes. So, we need to realize that while we don’t want to fail, it does have a hidden gift if we’re willing to receive—a chance to learn something important. Eli Lilly holds “failure parties” to honor drug trials and experiments that fail to achieve the desired results. The rational for these parties is to recognize that when little is ventured, little is lost, but little is gained too. Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley argues that very high success rates show incremental innovation—but what he wants are game changers. He has celebrated P&G’s 11 most expensive product failures, focusing on what the company learned from each. So don’t be afraid to admit mistakes—and ask “What can I learn” from each.
- Understand and address the root cause. When Apple introduced the iPhone 4 in 2010, many customers complained about dropped calls. Apple first responded by suggesting the problem lay in the way customers held the phones, suggested they “avoid gripping [the phone] in the lower left corner.” Steve Jobs called the problem a “non-issue.” Only later did Apple address the root cause of the problem—and fix it. When you make an error, try to understand what caused it.
- Reward owning up. If you make a mistake, be willing to speak up and admit it. Too often we dig ourselves deeper into a hole by being defensive about mistakes. That also keeps us from learning from our failures. If we all make mistakes, what are we being so defensive about?
Given the complexity of human behavior, we’ll never avoid making mistakes entirely. Indeed, a healthy appreciation for how mistake-prone we are is one of the points of this chapter (and of Chapter 6: Perception and Decision-Making). But we can do a better job of admitting our mistakes and learning from them when they occur.
- C. Edmondson, “Strategies For Learning From Failure,” Harvard Business Review 89, No. 4 (2011), pp. 48-55; R. G. McGrath, “Failing By Design,” Harvard Business Review 89, No. 4 (2011), pp. 76-83; C. H. Tinsley, R. L. Dillon, and P. M. Madsen, “How to Avoid Catastrophe,” Harvard Business Review 89, no. 4 (2011), pp. 90-97.