The right way to learn from failure

We acknowledge, in KM, that learning from failure is desirable, but what kind of failure are we talking about?

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We hear the terms “Failure” “Error” and “Mistake” very often in Knowledge Management circles; often treated as synonyms. In particular, the terms “Learning from Failure,” “Learning from Mistakes” and “Learning by Trial and Error” are almost interchangeable.

But these words are not complete synonyms, particularly in Knowledge Management terms.

According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, a Mistake is an act or judgement that is misguided or wrong, an Error is the state or condition of being wrong in conduct, judgement or outcome, while a Failure is a lack of success.

So I could Fail at something or make an Error, without it necessarily being a Mistake, even though a Mistake always leads to error. I could try something that was a stretch or a gamble, and that turned out to be impossible. I could try something unknown, and fail to succeed, but without making an error in judgement, or doing anything misguided. You cannot be misguided when attempting the unknown. Edison famously had a whole string of failures before inventing the light bulb, but none of them were mistakes; they were all part of a process of enlightened trial, failure and (ultimately) success.

A mistake, or an error of judgement, implies that you “should have known better”, and “should have known better” implies that knowledge was available, but not accessed or not used, even though it “should have been”. To learn from a mistake, you need to both acknowledge that available knowledge (that you now realise you should have known), and also sharpen up your Knowledge Management (so that in future, you acquire the knowledge you “should know” before you start an enterprise). Repeat failures are always mistakes.

There are therefore four categories when it comes to learning from failure.

1) There is learning from a failure when trying the unknown. You were trying something new, and met an unexpected barrier. This was not your fault – this was part of the exploration process. It was a justified error. You gained new knowledge, and need not only to learn from this, but to spread the learning to others who are also exploring the same area.

2) There is learning from planned failure. Sometimes you plan to fail. This is often the best way to explore a new product or process – try many things at one and select the one that does not fail. Create prototypes, plan pilots in as fail-safe an environment as you can. Deliberately try many things knowing that some will fail, and use this as a selection process to find the right path. This “trial and error”. This was Edison’s approach, and is often the smartest way to learning your way forward. As Dave Kelly, CEO of IDEO, said – “Enlightened trial and error out-performs the planning of flawless intellects”

3) There is learning from a failure when you should have known better. You were trying something new to you and met a barrier you did not expect, but found afterwards that others knew of this barrier. This was a failure of the knowledge management framework. You were either unaware of this knowledge, unable to find it, or unaware even of the need to look. In this case, you have not gained new knowledge about the barrier which needs to be shared; you have gained knowledge about the unreliability of the KM framework, and this needs to be fixed and improved before the failure is repeated again (see this cautionary tale).

4) There is learning from a failure when you had access to the knowledge, but ignored it. You were trying something new, others had shared knowledge with you, warned you about the barriers, but for some reason you thought “those barriers won’t affect me – my project is different“. This was a MISTAKE. This was an error of judgement on your part. You were at fault. You have learned nothing new about the barrier, but you have learned something about yourself.

Allow a lot of failure, and you will meet a lot of success.
Allow a lot of mistakes, and you won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

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