Learning from Failure – It’s Not Easy!

Last year Harvard Business Review published a summary of a paper titled, ““My Bad!” How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure“. Here are the conclusions from this paper.

Saying “My Bad” is actually good for you

We are more likely to learn from our failures if we take personal responsibility as opposed to external factors. For example, I may attribute the loss of a deal because the demo did not work as expected in front of the customer. I may completely ignore the fact that I was not prepared with a back-up plan and have a fall back solution in place for future demos.

My job description can stop me from learning

According to the authors of this paper, “surgeons learn far less from their own failures (learning instead from their own successes and others’ failures), presumably due to the ambiguity that comes from a bad surgical outcome – the surgeon is held accountable for the outcome, but it is unclear if it is his or her responsibility. The inherent gray area that comes with the job needs to be tackled if we expect the individual to learn from failures.

Remove ambiguities that can become convenient excuses

One way of making sure individuals and teams learn from their failures is to remove all extraneous factors that can later become excuses. If we go back to the salesman example, ensuring that the salesman has access to robust demo software / hardware is one way to making sure there is less ambiguity.

Create a culture of learning from failure

This is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Here are some suggestions by the author

– Non-punitive root-cause reviews when a team fails, which can result in both learning for those responsible and for other team members who can learn vicariously.

– Create a shared understanding, or framing, around the types of failures that employees can expect to happen at work; and reward the messenger who brings up bad news.

Srinivas Krishnaswamy


I love to read and share thoughts on technology, enterprise learning, mobile and any thing cool that impacts enterprises.

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Posted in Learning
One comment on “Learning from Failure – It’s Not Easy!
  1. […] post is in continuation to my earlier post on the topic of failure and how to come out of it […]

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