Eight keys for mining pure gold.
Harvard Business Review's April issue was devoted to the subject of failure. I was both intrigued and delighted by that, but what crossed my mind immediately was whether the writers would admit to the profound difficulties of learning from failure. A glance at the authors answered my question. Yep. Bazerman was writing. So also Edmonson and Kanter. They know the difficulties of learning from failure.
Individual failure, like organizational failure, can be very difficult to identify. Russo and Schoemaker's excellent study of decisionmaking gets at that difficulty with a quote from Churchill, emphasizing our blindness to feedback.
People sometimes stumble over the truth, but usually they pick themselves up and hurry about their business. --Winston Churchill
Studies show that more than 90% of the time we fail to learn from failure. An alcoholic goes into treatment for month intending to put an end to his habit. But a few months later he's back at it again. Prison recidivism rates are terrifying. A 2006 US study found that within three years of their release,67% of former prisoners are rearrested and 52% are re-incarcerated. Horrible stats, but dealing with failure is tough for all of us.
So frame it this way: Experience is inevitable, but learning from it is not. Our mental biases make learning from experience more difficult than most recognize. Our personal defense systems--the need to feel competent, in control, and comfortable--put boundaries around our ability and willingness to change.
I've found this list of issues that keep us from learning from failure especially useful:
- Limited or ambiguous information about decision results.
- Not enough time to make sense of the information available.
- No opportunity to test conclusions in new decisions.
- Anxiety about appearing a poor performer.
- Inability to see how observed outcomes might be interpreted differently.
- A tendency to jump to conclusions.
- Ignored or distorted feedback.
- Difficulty separating skill from luck.
These warnings have been a lifesaver to me and my clients. However, I've focused a lot on number 7 by using coaches to provide needed feedback.
I studied piano under three teachers (coaches), each a bit better than than the previous. Indeed, my last coach held a grad degree from Michigan and had studied under the great Artur Schnabel. She was a great artist, but not a great at feedback and coaching. I also studied voice under three teachers, each a bit better than the previous. I found voice studies more gratifying than piano, largely, I now believe, because of the expert coaching. One of my best college buddies was a bass-baritone with a huge, seemingly unmanageable voice. But he went on to Indiana University, one of our great music schools, where, as he related to me, the coaching was fabulous. Oh sure, talent plays a role, but in the final analysis, the studies of deliberate practice tell us that success is about discipline, chunking, feedback and coaching.
For the past ten years I've been working on my writing, seeking help from a number of colleagues. That experience has reinforced the conclusions of deliberate practice. A number of friends have gaven me some useful input. I hired an editorial director from one of the top publishing houses, learning about the publishing business, and gaining further writing expertise. Still, it was clear that I needed further coaching. Four years ago I literally stumbled on a Gen-Yer who had no difficulty being ruthless with his feedback, and was quite capable of answering my endless questions about writing. I can see the improvement. (FYI: he didn't edit this blog.)
My point is this: Learning from failure requires superb, often ruthless, feedback and coaching. If we keep at the search for coaches, upgrading regularly, eventually we'll find the master who can help us mine our failures. That's true whether you're working on piano, voice, skiing, golf, decisionmaking, teamwork, managing, leadership, etc., etc., etc.
Russo & Schoemaker, Winning Decisions, (eight preventive issues) p. 200.