How to make learning from failure a reality

This is one of a series of guest blog posts on topics relevant to public services in Wales, written by Ffion Jones.

The internet is liberally peppered with quotes and stories from the world’s highest achievers, from Richard Branson to Mark Zuckerberg, about how learning from failure has been a central part of their road to success. Virgin Cars, Virgin Cola and Virgin Brides (!) all failed but taught Virgin a valuable lesson – to ensure there was a real gap in the market and fill it with something of genuine use before launching a product.

But the real question for me is how do we translate these examples from billion dollar companies into our day to day lives? When we run learning activities we make sure everyone understands that failure is good, we’re expressly here to learn and failing i.e. risk taking is the key to making progress. The question leaders and team members alike struggle with is how to find the confidence to take those real world risks.

Matthew Syed gives a series of well researched case studies in his book Black Box Thinking of how rigorously acknowledging and implementing the practical lessons learned from systems failures has worked.  One that I found most striking was the story of Dr Gary S Kaplan taking the famous Toyota Production System into the Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle. He says, “The system was about cars, which are very different from people… But the underlying principle is transferable. If a culture is open and honest about mistakes, the entire system can learn from them.” Kaplan introduced a system which encouraged staff to report errors that could harm patients, from which practical changes could be made to lessen risks.

However, the critical piece of information is that it wasn’t adopted widely until it became clear that reported mistakes were praised, not punished.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School describes her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, as a real world guide for business and HR leaders on collaboration. Learning from failure and building a culture of psychological safety are pillars of her approach. In this article and video she says, “Executives I’ve interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude?  This concern is based on a false dichotomy. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can—and in some organizational contexts must—coexist with high standards for performance.” Readjusting our perception of failure is a good first step, using the Spectrum on the left to understand why a failure occurred and decide what type of change is needed.

Three key lessons to make learning from failure effective today are:

  1. Build a culture of psychological safety in your team. This means talking openly about failure and being willing to admit both inside and outside your team when something has gone wrong.
  2. Find a way to implement small, every day changes to processes from your learnings from failure. This can be as simple as creating a ‘failure space’ in your team meetings for new learnings and updates on resulting changes. People quickly develop an appetite for small, incremental improvements within their sphere of control.
  3. Use the Spectrum of Reasons for Failure to challenge your own perceptions and those of people around you of why failures occur to help move away from the blame game.

Failure is worth working hard for.


Ffion Jones is Learning & Development Manager (UK) for Opus International Consultants. A great lover of all things learning, with a strong belief that the deepest learning and best ideas come direct from teams working together. If we give people the power and the space to learn from each other, great results happen. Ffion’s goal is to create environments in which people and teams thrive through learning and idea generation. LinkedInTwitter.

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