Failing Forward

Posted by: Rod Kurtz on September 15, 2009

Though adaptation and change are inevitable for any business, they sometimes result in significant and costly mistakes. Though it is a natural reaction to try to bury the mistake and move on as though it never happened, this can be a more serious mistake than the original error.

When something goes awry—plans don’t materialize, a customer is irate, products or services don’t work as intended, an incorrect order is shipped—there is inherent in the situation the opportunity for learning. On the surface, of course, the learning is about what went wrong, whose fault it was, etc. To get to the "why" and "how" things went off-course, you have to delve more deeply into the failure and determine the causes and conditions surrounding it. Significant organizational learning is much more likely to take place in the face of failure than when things go right. Expectations are challenged, assumptions are reversed, and businesses have to examine and often redesign processes. While painful, these circumstances build resiliency and flexibility—much needed in these turbulent times.

Acknowledging and diagnosing the real causes of a problem or mistake are essential for a business that embraces change. Ask your employees to bring mistakes to you and the organization, instead of using their energy to cover them up. Talk about what happened, why it happened, and how the business can go forward and recognize the conditions that led to the failure. Fix learning instead of blame, and prime your business for change and renewal.

Lisa Gundry
Professor of Management
Director, The Center for Creativity & Innovation
DePaul University, Chicago

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