Learning from Failure

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Click for HBR article

Concept description

Writing in the Harvard Business Review (reference below and on right), Amy Edmondson says:

“The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.”

Edmondson reports that most executives believe that failure is bad and learning from failure is pretty straightforward. She says this is misguided for a number of reasons:

“First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. … That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.”

Trial and error – intelligent failures at the frontier

Edmondson writes:

“Failures in this category can rightly be considered “good,” because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organization leap ahead of the competition and ensure its future growth – which is why the Duke University professor of management Sim Sitkin calls them intelligent failures. They occur when experimentation is necessary: when answers are not knowable in advance because this exact situation hasn’t been encountered before and perhaps never will be again. Discovering new drugs, creating a radically new business, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are tasks that require intelligent failures. “Trial and error” is a common term for the kind of experimentation needed in these settings, but it is a misnomer, because “error” implies that there was a “right” outcome in the first place. At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly. Managers who practice it can avoid the unintelligent failure of conducting experiments at a larger scale than necessary.”

Promoting experimentation and meaningful pilots

She describes the value of promoting experimentation:

“The third critical activity for effective learning is strategically producing failures – in the right places, at the right times – through systematic experimentation. Researchers in basic science know that although the experiments they conduct will occasionally result in a spectacular success, a large percentage of them (70% or higher in some fields) will fail. How do these people get out of bed in the morning? First, they know that failure is not optional in their work; it’s part of being at the leading edge of scientific discovery. Second, far more than most of us, they understand that every failure conveys valuable information, and they’re eager to get it before the competition does.

“In contrast, managers in charge of piloting a new product or service – a classic example of experimentation in business – typically do whatever they can to make sure that the pilot is perfect right out of the starting gate. Ironically, this hunger to succeed can later inhibit the success of the official launch. Too often, managers in charge of pilots design optimal conditions rather than representative ones. Thus the pilot doesn’t produce knowledge about what won’t work.”


Atlas topic, subject, and course

Promoting Learning (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107


Amy C. Edmondson (2011), Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011, at https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure, accessed 3 April 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 3 April 2018.

Image: Amy C. Edmondson (2011), Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011, at https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure, accessed 3 April 2018.