Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

26 January 2012

Sharing Failure

Clark @ 6:21 AM

I’ve earlier talked about the importance of failure in learning, and now it’s revealed that Apple’s leadership development program plays that up in a big way.  There are risks in sharing, and rewards. And ways to do it better and worse.

In an article in Macrumors (obviously, an Apple info site), they detail part of Adam Lashinsky’s new Inside Apple book that reports on Apple executive development program.  Steve Jobs hired a couple of biz school heavyweights to develop the program, and apparently “Wherever possible the cases shine a light on mishaps…”.  They use examples from other companies, and importantly, Apple’s own missteps.

Companies that can’t learn from mistakes, their own and others’, are doomed to repeat them.  In organizations where it’s not safe to share failures, where anything you say can and will be held against you, the same mistakes will keep getting made.  I’ve worked with firms that have very smart people, but their culture is so aggressive that they can’t admit errors.  As a consequence, the company continues to make them, and gets in it’s own way.  However, you don’t want to celebrate failure, but you do want to tolerate it. What can you do?

I’ve heard a great solution.  Many years ago now, at the event that led to Conner’s & Clawson’s Creating a Learning Culture, one small company shared their approach: they ring a bell not when the mistake is made, but when the lesson’s learned.  They’re celebrating – and, importantly,  sharing – the learning from the event.  This is a beautiful idea, and a powerful opportunity to use social media when the message goes beyond a proximal group.

There’s a lot that goes on behind this, particularly in terms of having a culture where it’s safe to make mistakes  Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as the saying goes..  What is a problem is making the same mistake, or dumb mistakes.  How do you prevent the latter?  By sharing your thinking, or thinking out loud, as you develop your planned steps.

Now, just getting people sharing isn’t necessarily sufficient.  Just yesterday (as I write), Jane Bozarth pointed me towards an article in the New Yorker (at least the abstract thereof) that argues why brainstorming doesn’t work.  I’ve said many times that the old adage “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room” needs a caveat: if you manage the process right.  There are empirical results that guide what works from what doesn’t, such as: having everyone think on their own first; then share; focus initially on divergence before convergence; make a culture where it’s safe, even encouraged, to have a diversity of viewpoints; etc.

No one says getting a collaborating community is easy, but like anything else, there are ways to do it, and do it right.  And here too, you can learn from the mistakes of others…


  1. I totally agree with this post. We breed a culture within schools and businesses alike where failure and errors are negatively perceived.
    How refreshing it is then when you get to work in an environment where the bell goes off! The best thing we can teach our kids is to rise from the failure CHANGED and to constantly dare with new ideas. If we spent our lives living in the safe perameters of success and perfection then nothing and no one would ever change or develop or grow. Thanks for your excellent thinking on this extremely relevant topic.

    Comment by Kimberley Rivett — 27 January 2012 @ 2:00 AM

  2. The collaborative community environment you write about, in which mistakes are learned from and risks encouraged, reminds me of elementary school. Not school nowadays, but rather the 7th Ward Creole public school I went to in New Orleans in the ’50s. Our teachers pushed us to succeed but were available to pick us up and inspire us when the going got tough. I recently got back in touch with many of my 5th grade classmates to document their experiences in school for my book, and I found a very successful community!

    Comment by Dr. Beverly Anderson — 27 January 2012 @ 12:49 PM

  3. Memories… we both worked alongside one very manipulative and toxic person who was determined to undermine the whole company; and in time achieved that. Indeed I am so much wiser for that experience and choose now to work with professionals who respect each other:)

    Comment by Kate Gardiner — 6 February 2012 @ 4:27 PM

  4. Kate, I remember it well. We finally got a new CEO, who I ‘nudged’ about the situation (which was awkward, to say the least). Shortly thereafter, the toxic person ‘moved on’, and the org survived and even thrived for a while. Still surviving in one form. It was a pleasure working with you, and glad to hear you ended up in a better situation. Great to hear from you (and see you here).

    Comment by Clark — 7 February 2012 @ 5:00 AM

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