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Do you learn from failure?  Wouldn’t it be better to learn, before they fail?  This article is about how to better learn from your projects, and be better at implementing those “Lessons learnt”.  It includes a checklist that a client found really useful; a checklist that you can apply during any project, initiative, or even to your strategy.

1. Background: Help us improve “learning from failure”

I recently helped a large corporate to help with their strategy for innovation and their culture of innovation.  They have a reputation for good innovation, in what they do, how they do it and how they help their suppliers to innovate.  However, I was still able to help.

One part was how to improve how they learnt from failure.  To support this, I produced a list of questions to ask themselves about their “Failed projects”. They thought that it was a great checklist for use in their innovation project boards and review meetings.  I am sharing an updated version with you.

First two ideas that positioned this piece of work…

2. Reframing “Failure” as “Not yet a success”.

The first thing I did was reframe the idea of “Learning from failure”.  Learning from failure does rather rely on someone formally declaring a project as a failure, ‘so it can be learnt from’.  That declaration might be premature.  It might be inappropriate.

A better frame for learning, would be to learn from ideas “that are not successful, or not yet successful”.  (We tend to prematurely call these ‘failures’).  This reframe enables a more open approach to analysing what has been going on, and why.  It also supports learning during the process, not simply at the end, or when the project has failed.  Why wait to learn from failure – why not learn during the project, so you can put it right.

3. Look at both the innovation, and the process of innovation

It is also useful to recognise that Innovation has two aspects:

  • The innovations themselves (The content); and
  • How those innovations are chosen, evaluated implemented and the benefits realised. (The innovation process).

‘This idea failed’ is quite different to, ‘Our process failed to do justice to this idea’.  Successful organisations find and apply innovations successfully, and improve how they innovate (the innovation process).  Both build knowledge,  capability and performance in our organisations.

4. A checklist for “This has not been successful yet”

This checklist will help you learn from failures.  It refers to ideas and innovations, that may be not yet be unsuccessful for a variety of reasons.  Of course, the questions here apply equally well to any project, initiative or strategy. For ease, I have divided the list into sub-topics:

The innovation process

  1. An innovation may be unsuccessful because of the innovation process.  The innovation process may not have been applied well to that idea (eg the pilot was not appropriate or the integration not extensive enough).   A failure of how we apply the process of innovation.
  2. Innovations often require change to create transformation.  We fail if we do not design and manage the changes necessary for the introduction and use of innovation.  A failure to recognise and manage the change.
  3. An innovation might be unsuccessful because it is not integrated into existing operations, existing operations are not changed to support the innovation.  A failure to adapt to gain the benefit from innovations.

The culture of innovation

  1. An innovation may lack a genuine problem owner.  A problem owner is someone who cares about finding a solution enough to support and drive through its development and implementation.  The sponsor might merely fund that.  A failure of ownership.
  2. An innovation solution may be unsuccessful because of the culture, behaviours or resources for innovation.  We must learn what stops innovations being successful.  A failure of the support for innovation.

Benefits

  1. An innovation may be unsuccessful because of how it is scaled and implemented.  A failure to capture the scale of the benefits of an innovation.
  2. An innovation may be successful, but lack benefits, or immediate benefits.  A failure to provide sufficient, wide or early enough benefits.
  3. An innovation may be unsuccessful because the costs outweigh the overall mix of benefits, or it can be done cheaper in a different way. A failure of the eventual benefit case.

Risk aversion, management and bravery

  1. We might decide that an innovation is too risky, or too difficult to implement. A failure to manage risk, or a failure of courage or bravery.

Timing, not yet…

  1. An innovation may not be successful, yet.  However, it may be appropriate later, when the solution is cheaper, or after some other parts of the solution are in place.  These are not failures, but simply not yet successful or applicable, because of timing.

Only then do we get to…   the idea

  1. An innovation may be unsuccessful because of the idea.  The innovation process has revealed that the idea or solution does not sufficiently solve the problem, need or challenge.  A failure of the content of the solution or idea.

Of course, the lessons must be identified, learnt and applied

  1. If we fail to take the time and effort to assess and learn from that which has not succeeded yet, then we will continue to head for failure and fail.  Or learn too late.  A failure to take the time to evaluate and identify lessons that we should learn and apply.
  2. We may have “learnt” lessons in the past, but we failed to apply them to these most recent projects. A failure to apply the lessons, which we “previously learnt”, or should have previously “learnt.

5. What do we really mean by “Lessons learnt”

Even the phrase “Lessons learnt” should be unpacked.  I started that unpacking in the last two questions.  Here is a richer piece where ‘Learning lessons’ has four distinct parts:

  • Assessment and evaluation of the issue so a lesson can be identified and created. What is the thing that should change?
  • Creation of the lesson: How do we make sure that issue we have identified is understood properly?
  • That lesson is taught, spread, communicated, socialised: Is it taught, understood, and embedded in people’s minds and ways of working? (You know I like socialising ideas)
  • That lesson is applied, as intended: Is the new way of thinking and working actually embedded in peoples’ thinking and behaviours, so they can apply it?

Think back to school days when you had a lesson but may not have applied in in the exam….  Was the lesson learnt?  Was it understood in the first place?  Did you revise it and make sense of it?  Did it become embedded and natural? Could you apply it when the time came?

Lessons are not learnt, when they are merely identified.  That is only the start of the change.  This is at least a multi- part process because those who identify the lesson learnt, are not necessarily those who need to learn it.  (But they might be)

6. Have you spotted the overriding theme of these questions?

Almost all these questions ask, “Are we at fault here?”.  They are asking. “Is it possible that we are doing something wrong, and the innovation, project, strategy is fine?”  Is it possible that we are not creating the right climate to succeed?  Are we managing this appropriately?

That is the higher-level question here, and one where learning truly resides.  If WE fail to take the time to learn from what is happening, and adjust what e do, as well as them, we will continue to fail.

7. Of course, this applies to strategy, just as it applies to innovations

Of course, all of this applies to strategy, in exactly the same way.  Learning about the application of our strategies; how we learn from their design, process and application, before they fail!   (of course, you knew that didn’t you).

Further reading

We build learning into all of our approaches with Clients.  Into their decision making, their approach to performance management, into their strategy process.  Ensuring our clients learn from us, is fundamental to how we work. You can read more about improving how you learn, individually, or as an organisation in

  • Introducing an approach to embed learning into how we make, take and act on decisions. “The decision improvement zone”
  • Learn about an approach to managing your strategy, that can make you more responsive as a learning organisation: Treating strategy as a learning process in “The Strategy Zone