Win or lose, you should always learn

People often make a big thing about learning from failure, but learning from success is just as important, and can often be overlooked.

The impetus to revisit this topic came from a one-liner post on LinkedIn by Oleg Vishnepolsky reading “Sometimes I win, sometimes I learn.”

My reply was “Win or lose, you should always learn”.

Sometimes it seems as if learning is reserved for failures. If there is a safety near miss, or an incident in a hospital, or technical non-conformance, then learning swings into action. When all goes well, learning is an afterthought. And it is certainly true that individuals learn much better from their mistakes, as a result of the emotional charge and the emotional scars that failure brings.

However you can argue equally strongly that success is a better teacher, because a fail mode only tells you one option not to try; it does not tell you how to succeed. So as well as learning from a hospital incident, you should learn from, and emulate, those hospitals that never had an incident, or those suppliers whose technical products always conform. This is the principle behind positive deviance – the idea that there are always positive outliers; individuals, groups or companies that perform far better than their peers, and which should be the first place you look to for learning.

Which is the better approach – learning from success, or learning from failure?

This is of course another one of KM’s “false dichotomies”. Someone in NASA once said (and I can’t find the source of this quote I am afraid) that “in NASA we say there are no successes or failures, there are only Events. We learn from Events.” The whole concept of success and failure is irrelevant to learning. Most events, most projects, are a mix of both, and we need to learn from both.

Learning from failure helps you learn how not to fail, learning from success helps you learn how to succeed. You need to decide which is more important. 

At a corporate level, or as a society, we collectively make the biggest learning steps when we finally succeed. Think of Edison and his light filament; when did he do the most learning? When he tried each of the 99 options that didn’t work, or when he found the one that did? Now obviously he learned from both, but let’s look at the value of that knowledge to others.

If you were a light bulb maker, which of these two statements from Thomas Edison would be of most value to you?

  1. You can’t make a light bulb filament out of cat hair 
  2. You can make a light bulb filament out of tungsten 
Obviously, the second one. He learned from the first, but all of us have learned from the second.

And here are a couple of quotes from the Business insider article mentioned earlier about some of teh risks from learning only from failure;

When you continually focus on failure, you actually create an environment where people are afraid to share their successful actions, lest they appear to be bragging, making light of an otherwise bad situation, or taking advantage of someone else being called out for their failures. This keeps truly useful learning from becoming a part of your organization’s practice. 

More existentially, continually focusing on failure is disastrous for morale. It’s one thing to avoid sweeping toxic stuff under the rug, but it’s another to always leave a stinking pile of crap in the room. 

Fortunately, it’s very easy to make a cultural shift here. You just need to ensure that at least some of your “after action” reporting, whether it occurs in meetings or memos or informal hallway chats, is dedicated to what went right. Even an event that was largely a failure probably has some small successes that need to be shared.

 This is why, in the Retrospect meetings that Knoco often facilitates, we give equal discussion time to success and failure. An in some cultures such as the UK culture (where people are always happy to talk about failure) we start by discussing the successes, lest these get ignored.

The implication for Knowledge Management

The implication for Knowledge Management is this:

You need to learn from both success and failure, but you need to learn much more carefully and deliberately from success, because: 

  • success can be less obvious – you may have to look for those positive deviance examples;
  • learning from success can be more difficult (it is easier to isolate what went wrong than what went right); and
  • ultimately, success is what you want others to replicate.

As an example, let’s look at the typical systems set up to learn from safety incidents. Most of these systems have detailed root cause analysis when there is a near miss or an incident, and the lessons from these are sent around the organisation so others can learn from this safety failure.

However it is far more important to learn from the (positively deviant) factory or plant that never has an accident, and never has a near miss. That is the factory everyone needs to emulate, which means they need to carefully understand WHY they are so safe, and then learn from this.

We know that it is human nature to learn best from mistakes, but we don’t want to be at the mercy of human nature. We don’t want people to have to screw up in order to learn. We don’t want failures and screw ups if we can possibly avoid it, because mistakes and screwups can cost money, they can cost lives (in certain cases), and they can cost careers if they are big enough.

Learning in a KM Framework

The ideal situation, in any mature KM or lesson-learning framework, is that you learn as a matter of course from every event, whether you deliver failure, success or a mixture of both (and it usually is a mixture).

Learning, as in lesson identification meetings such as After Action reviews and Retrospects, should be a routine exercise, regardless of success or failure. Address both, learn from both, and give particular attention to understanding the causes of success.

Fail fast and fail often is a good mantra, so long as it leads to success, and it is the success that is the greatest learning opportunity.

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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