build Tool: Learn from failures

Your appetite for risk is another indicator of how innovative your company can be. Risk is an inherent part of the innovation process. As you test out new ideas, some will fail. Fear of failure can stop innovation in its tracks — in a work setting, people are afraid of what failure might mean for their performance scores, compensation, and even job security.

Despite knowing that innovation requires an environment where people feel safe to speak up and take risks with new ideas, organizations often, intentionally and unintentionally, discourage risk-taking rather than encourage it. Amy Edmondson, a researcher of psychological safety, interviewed several executives about the response to failure in their organizations. These executives acknowledged that failure rarely results from direct, blameworthy actions; on average, the group estimated that 2-5 percent of failures in their organizations were truly blameworthy. Yet the same group estimated that 70-90 percent of these failures were still treated as blameworthy.

You’ll need to figure out what your organization’s tolerance for failure is, and different areas may have different appetites. Every quarter, Google’s leaders review their performance against set objectives and key results (OKRs) in front of the whole company. More often than not, teams don’t hit their goal 100 percent, but aren’t ashamed to share details of their progress and missteps. Leaders regularly explain why they didn’t fully achieve their stated goals, what they’ve learned, and what they plan to do next to move forward. Modeling failure in this way sends a powerful message to everyone in the company that it is OK to fail so long as you learn from it, share what you’ve learned, and make plans to do better.

Googlers have adopted a few practices to learn from failures. Sometimes, before a project even begins, teams come together to talk about all the possible ways a project could fail. This exercise, called a “premortem,” was popularized by Gary Klein in 2007. This type of discussion helps to normalize failure by talking about it openly and, importantly, can provide the benefits of learning from failure while avoiding the pain of actually failing.

Similarly, at Google, when a project launches or if there’s a major service disruption, teams will come back together to talk about how things went. This “postmortem” exercise is all about having an open and honest conversation about what went well, what didn’t, and what the team could do to improve. Some teams have even gotten in front of the entire company to share a project’s postmortem analysis. Failure is a data point from which the entire organization should learn.

Use the tools below as a general framework to get started with your team and customize the content to make it more useful for you.

Premortem discussion template

Use this template to guide your team’s discussion about possible ways your project can fail and how you might prevent them from happening.

Postmortem discussion template

Use this template to guide an open and honest team discussion about the project and how you can learn from the experience. This exercise helps to make a habit of learning from mistakes (and successes).

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