Failing is never really fun. Admitting it is even less fun. Although there is a move afoot to see failure as an opportunity to learn, it’s easier said than done. This 3-part article seeks to provide a provocative perspective on how to think about learning from unintentional failure through the use of evidence, information and knowledge (EI&K).
Failing in Order to Succeed: Part 1
See: Part 2, Part 3
By Lorri Zipperer
Zipperer Project Management. Albuquerque, NM firstname.lastname@example.org
Failing is never really fun. Admitting it is even less fun. Although there is a move afoot to see failure as an opportunity to learn, it’s easier said than done. This article seeks to provide a provocative perspective on how to think about learning from unintentional failure through the use of evidence, information and knowledge (EI&K). It highlights the value of a systemic EI&K-centered approach to learning from failure. It also suggests how information and knowledge professionals -- through individual and organisational prisms -- can both potentially contribute to failures and enhance learning from them —for themselves, their clients and their peers.
Failure due to design or deviation
There are two distinctly different types of failure: Failure as a part of the innovation process and failure due to mismatches in how systems and people interact. The strategy of planned failure to enhance innovation and new idea generation is the more recognised side of this coin. Let’s face it, the creatives in our midst get this. Prototype after prototype, whether you are the innovation shop IDEO, a master chief, or jazz quartet -- understanding the opportunities inherent in “picking themselves up, brushing themselves off, and starting all over again ” is an attitude many of us should adopt. In either situation however, how to optimize learning from the failed experience should not be left to chance.
As typically construed, failure is not something most organisations and people want to have to experience. Even if organisations are enlightened and try to deal with the consequences of failure, most of us would recognize that it is rarely done well.
However negative the outcome – the organisations and individuals involved need to be accountable to do something with the experience. This course is responsible, appropriate and right. It is through this mindset, that the experience of failure can be harnessed to enhance decision-making reliability and personal mastery. It motivates improvement and innovation. Failure can illustrate the sense of urgency to change dysfunctional organisational behaviour. Failure can stimulate changes in cultural norms and individual mental models. A robust commitment to learning from failure -- coupled with EI&K -- can heighten the effectiveness of the opportunities failure can present.
Failure needs a learning strategy to plant seeds
There needs to be a strategy to optimize the learning opportunities inherent in failure. Strategy does not equal rhetoric or some sort of marketing scheme. Constructive reactions to failure won’t happen unguided. A plan enhanced by leadership, mentoring and a rich resource-base is required.
Knowledge management and information professionals should be oriented, enabled and encouraged to play a role in that strategy. Leadership needs to hire those professionals with the skills and aptitude to do this work. We already know that they can apply their expertise to identify, connect and disseminate information and evidence. In addition, they will need a willingness to expand that aptitude with an eye toward enriching professional practice and organisational culture through tacit knowledge sharing. Information and knowledge professionals can illustrate and inform the viability of this learning opportunity by looking inward then applying what was uncovered at their organisation.
We all have a readily-available mechanism from which to learn and test improvements-- the folly that we perpetrate and that is in our midst. We learn in how we react to it. We must start learning from our own missteps.
We can do that by:
• Admitting when we screw up
• Backing away from blame (either on yourselves or others)
• Being aware of overconfidence and bias
• Seeking opportunities to learn from personal blunders
• Sharing learnings in a transparent way
• Enlisting others to help minimize negative reactions to failure; and
• Exploring opportunities for improvement both within and outside our box.
Organisations are messy places. The complexity of how organisations function as systems is replete with not only failure, but also obstacles that impede learning from failure. Our participation as “fallible humans” creates another layer in the organisational complexity. Information and knowledge professionals can help facilitate learning opportunities by:
• Translating their personal experiences into test cases for unit and team improvement
• Using knowledge-sharing techniques to apply failure-ignited insights to tools, trainings, and tactics
• Infusing an awareness of failure into data, information and evidence-delivery strategy and technology development
• Being aware of the “systemness” of failure – that failure occurs in all parts throughout the system in multiple, varied ways - and bringing that knowledge to bear with organisational mission and goals in mind
Part 2 will submit there is a role for the information professional in assisting in learning from failure at an organizational level.
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