Get Social

Learning from Failure stock image
Glowing light bulb among the crumpled rubbish paper

How We Can Learn As Much From Failure as Success

January 6, 2022
David Wilkie
When teams talk about what went wrong, they learn what works, what should change and what to do better

We all want to succeed, to achieve our goals. And that means we also want to know how to make our aspirations come true, and what will help us do the best we can to make a difference.

Evidence of success has become the holy grail sought by teachers, health care providers, relief organizations, conservation NGOs, policy makers and foundations. All have the same wish – to either show conclusively that their work leads to desired outcomes, or to know about other approaches that are proven to work so they can be replicated.

However, the problem with focusing only on such affirmative evidence is that we often learn more from failures than from our successes. And it’s only through learning that we can adapt and continue to improve over time.

The challenge, as uncovered by a recent study supported by the Walton Family Foundation, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, is that talking publicly about our failures with others turns out to be really hard and unfortunately almost never happens in ways that promote shared learning within organizations.

The study identified four key barriers to talking about and learning from failure:

  • Reticence of staff to talk publicly about failure for fear of losing respect, status and support for their work;
  • Restrictions from some funders on changes in approved budget line items are inadvertently an impediment to reporting failure and adapting work plans over the life of a project;
  • Decentralization results in locally appropriate solutions to conservation challenges, but can also create numerous silos that prevent lessons from failure being shared more broadly within an organization; and
  • Limited staff capacity because they are swamped with work and there can be little incentive to talk about failure with their teams, especially when they are not getting the message from their leaders that doing so is valued and valuable.

The report focused on one solution in particular for the first and last barriers listed above – the use by teams of Pause and Reflect sessions.

Pause and Reflect is a simple process for teams to meet regularly (or in response to a crisis) and ask themselves what they hoped to achieve, what went well, what not so well and what adjustments can be made to do better.

It is one of the best ways for teams to learn together, to adapt and improve their work as they learn new things and to share what they are learning with others.

Pause and Reflect Sessions are used by many different types of organizations. The military all over the world uses Pause and Reflect sessions after every patrol or deployment - they call them After Action Reviews. Hospital emergency room staff use them at the end of each day to talk about what treatments worked best and what treatments could be improved.

Team learning through Pause and Reflect discussions can occur as a regularly scheduled part of the team’s work, to discuss day-to-day successes and see if they can be improved, as well as activities that may not be going as planned and may need to change. Special sessions of Pause and Reflect can be implemented after a crisis or observed failure has happened and urgently needs to be understood and addressed.

The truly game-changing aspect of team Pause and Reflect sessions is that they are empowering for staff who are not in positions of power.

The report notes that conducting regularly scheduled Pause and Reflect sessions is an essential way for teams to learn the process of frank and open discussion without “blame gaming.” This arms them with the experience they need to conduct a Pause and Reflect session when a crisis has occurred that needs to be deciphered and resolved quickly.

An important takeaway from the study is that teams need to practice doing Pause and Reflect sessions while things are going relatively well, before a crisis happens, to build the skills, capacity and culture for when they really need to Pause and Reflect.

The truly game-changing aspect of team Pause and Reflect sessions is that they are empowering for staff who are not in positions of power. Through these sessions, staff can see that their voices are listened to - and their ideas acted upon. They help teams work better together when things are going well, help prevent the preventable and can help people understand why things did not work as expected so these failures are less likely to happen again.

In addition, Pause and Reflect is a quick and relatively easy way for teams to learn how to work better together and both prevent and address failures. This process is encouraged as part of our Strategic Learning practice.

Regularly scheduled, documented and distilled Pause and Reflect sessions have the potential to: a) massively reduce staff time invested in progress reporting, b) increase team learning from both success and failure resulting in teams working better and more effectively together, and c) grantmakers gaining meaningful understanding into the ways in which grantees are learning how to use grant support more effectively and avoid repeating failure.

If Pause and Reflect is used as an alternative to current reporting requirements, it could free up staff time to do the work they were hired to and speed up team learning and adaptive management. It can provide grantmakers with a far better understanding of how their support is working and how their grantees are learning how to work more effectively. This is precisely the kind of approach the Walton Family Foundation is currently developing with the intention to more effectively learn together with grantees.

Pause and Reflect could truly transform the culture and practice of conservation, and that would be giant step toward helping us all do the best we can to make a difference.

Recent Stories