MIT Edmondson on how to avoid mistakes

MIT Edmondson on how to avoid mistakes

The techies and management gurus of Silicon Valley are calling for us to celebrate failure.

Even then, learning from mistakes is easier said than done. We have an instinctive emotional aversion to failure. When we try to interpret the situation, conflict can occur. To deal with aversion, managers must reframe the situation. One way to look at the cause and how it sits on a continuum from blameworthy to praiseworthy. Edmondson points to these six examples, beginning from the blameworthy side: Sabotage, inattention, inability, uncertainty, and experimentation. If we want to avoid addiction, Sabotage and inattention must be weeded out, experimentation should be encouraged.

The efforts to celebrate failure are referring to what she calls intelligent failure, which has four characteristics. It takes place in new territory, and the context presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desirable goal, informed by available knowledge making it hypothesis-driven. The failure is as small as it can be to provide valuable insights.

s the result of a thoughtful experiment - not a haphazard or sloppy one, she says in the book Right Kind of Wrong.

Her Harvard colleague, Thomas Eisenmann, has discovered that many start-up failures are caused by skipping basic homework. She cites one of the worst new product failures - Crystal Pepsi. It was an effort in 1992 to capitalize on a market trend that favoured clear and caffeine-free drinks that failed to include clear drinks in clear bottles deteriorate easily and subsequently taste lousy.

You're responsible to use both time and resources wisely, as failures consume time and resources. The girl's mother kept the date with the man she would become her father small: They met for a drink. Because failure can affect reputations, Ms. Edmondson notes it can make sense to experiment behind closed doors, as happens when we try on new clothes in a changing room. Closeting projects as soon as it's clear they're not working is another way to keep the impact small.

She says you have to answer yes to the following four questions to design a smart pilot project. Is the pilot being tested under typical circumstances rather than optimal circumstances? Is the goal of the pilot to learn as much as possible? Is it clear that compensation and performance reviews are not based on a successful outcome for the pilot? Is it clear from the pilot's point of view that changes were made as a result of his/her actions?

She delineates intelligent failures in her topology of failures. The most common failures are basic failures. They involve mistakes in well-trodden territory, usually 'oopses' with a single cause. They are unproductive, wasting time, energy, and resources. They sometimes produce learning, but essentially they are not the right kind of wrong.

She warns that the strategy for avoiding them is unintended and thus the strategy for preventing them can't be punishment since it encourages people not to admit failure and probably increase the number of basic failures you face.

The desire for failure is to find a culprit - blame it on a single individual or cause. She says that just reduces the psychological safety required to practice the science of failing well. You still want accountability, even though it must come through what she calls blameless reporting.

That doesn't make for a bumper-sticker mantra like It's more nuanced and complicated but a better way of understanding the failure - and opportunity to learn from failures - around us.

Harvey Schachter, a Toronto-based writer, focuses on management issues. Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of EDS Canada and Cancom, is the author of When Harvey Didn't Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.