Stop Wasting Your Failures! Plan for Intelligent Failure

It’s all fine and good to say learn from your failures, but how?  First you need to acknowledge that they will happen.  Especially right now in the current economy.  Rita McGrath notes:

Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations.

Then you plan for failure. Sim Sitkin talks about intelligent failure in his article “Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses.” Intelligent failure? Yep.  Essentially planning your projects to be certain that you will learn something from them succeed or fail.  What do intelligent failures look like?

  • They are carefully planned, so that when things go wrong you know why
  • They are genuinely uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  • They are modest in scale, so that a catastrophe does not result
  • They are managed quickly, so that not too much time elapses between outcome and interpretation
  • Something about what is learned is familiar enough to inform other parts of the business.

McGrath adds two more in her article Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures?

  • Underlying assumptions are explicitly declared
  • These can be tested at specific checkpoints, identified in advance, since planned results may not be equivalent to outcomes.

Why bother?

Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.

Despite your best efforts and preventative measures you will still fail occasionally, best to set yourself and your project up for intelligent failure to ensure you learning something from it.

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2 comments for “Stop Wasting Your Failures! Plan for Intelligent Failure

  1. March 30, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Hi Bobbi – I’m trying to think about how this would apply in a library context. Did an example come to mind as you were thinking about or writing this post? Thanks, Jean

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