Friday, May 16, 2008

Do we really learn from failure?


Its an often heard expression: “We learn from our failures”. Particularly when you’ve just failed at something: “Well put it down to experience.”

I’ve always had my doubts: if we can learn from failure can’t we also learn from success? But how often do you hear people say: “Great success! Now what did you learn?”

All too often we don’t stop, examine our failures, take time to reflect and actually do the learning from them. We’ve failed, failure is painful, we want to put that behind us, forget about it. Maybe we could make time but do we really want to? Who wants to dwell on what has gone wrong? Naturally, after a failure we are defensive, and when we are defensive our learning process aren’t at their most effective.

In the IT world failure isn’t an absolute. Its not like a football match, one side goes home knowing they scored more goals than the other and therefore “won.”

If an IT project delivers late is it automatically a failure? What if it succeeds in the other goals?
What if it is late, and costs more, but delivers more value to the business?

I often tell story I found when I was writing my MBA dissertation. For this project I interviewed a variety of software developers about past projects, one guys, lets call him Paul (because that’s his name), he said:         ‘The project was a great success’

He went on to describe how the technology was good, the product did what the customer wanted and everyone was pleased with the outcome. Then I said: ‘You say the project was a success, but before that you said it took 12 months to complete, and how it was originally estimated to take 3 months. Some people would say a project that was nine months late on a three month schedule was a failure’

To which he replied: ‘I never thought of it like that’

Failure is ambiguous. So how do we know when and what to learn?

In Wednesday’s FT there is a piece by David Story in which he looks at some statistics. He discusses the failure rate of entrepreneurs. If we learn from our failures we should expect entrepreneur who have failed in business to be more successful if they launch another business. But it turns out the chances of a business succeeding are the same whether the founder is a first time entrepreneur or an entrepreneur with a failure behind them.

You are as likely to success with your first business as your are the second or third. The odds don’t improve.

The only thing that does change is that you try again. If you never launch a business venture you can’t have a successful one. If you failure once you can’t have a success unless you try again. He likens it to buying tickets in the lottery.

If we don’t learn from our failures, we don’t learn from our success, and often we don’t even know what was successful and what was a failure, then how are we to learn?

We have to buy more lottery tickets. We have to institutionalise our learning, we have to create routines to learn and set our learning triggers.