Learning from failure

There’s been a lot of high profile failure recently and we can learn from it, say Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook.

Learning from failure seems very much to the fore at the moment. After initiating a disastrous general election in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May declared publicly that she had failed: “I’ve got us into this mess and I’ll get us out of it”, she is reported to have said.

At the corporate level, a recent catastrophic British Airways IT failure resulted in major and complete passenger chaos over several days, with all planes grounded. It is very apposite that a Museum of Failure has just opened in Sweden to illustrate brand failures and what you can learn from them, featuring pink pens for women, Harley Davidson perfume and a Donald Trump board game.

Its director proclaimed “Learning is the only way to turn failure into success”.

This article discusses how we anticipate and respond to failure, both at an individual and organisational level and what can be done to learn from failure to turn a negative into a positive.

Indicators of failure-prone organisations

Broadly, errors fall into three categories: operational mistakes against clearly defined processes, strategic failures and experimental failures, trying out new ideas and innovations. The attitude to each will be different. Matthew Syed argues, in Black Box Thinking [1], for looking for real, not superficial answers like an aeroplane’s black box recording multiple perspectives and data.

He cites users of this thinking approach to failure as the Mercedes Formula One team, Google, James Dyson and the basketball player Michael Jordan.

A Cass Business School report, ‘Roads to Ruin [2], examined failure by investigating some 20 major corporate crises over the last decade. The failures examined involved large, well-known organisations such as Coca-Cola, Firestone, Shell, Northern Rock, Railtrack and the UK Passport Agency.  It concluded common themes were:

  • Limitations on board competence and the ability of their Non-Executive Directors (NEDs)
  • Board risk blindness – the failure of boards to engage with important risks, including risks to reputation and ‘licence to operate’
  • Poor leadership on ethos and culture
  • Defective communication
  • Risks arising from excessive complexity
  • Risk ‘Glass Ceilings’, arising from the inability to report on risks emanating from a senior level

Why is it so hard to learn from failure?

In almost every organisation there is a marked reluctance amongst many executives and employees to acknowledge their failures and to admit mistakes, keeping very quiet that they messed up.

It often takes whistle-blowers to expose corporate failure and even when failure is highlighted, managers often feel it is better just to carry on, blind to the advantages of analysing, understanding and learning from their mistakes. As a result, they are vulnerable to repeating the same mistakes again.

It is a common reaction for individuals to deny, justify or be embarrassed by mistakes. Collectively, this can contribute to an organisational culture where it becomes the norm in how people behave.

Review and reflect

It is important to reflect on any mistakes or failures that you have experienced. L&D can help facilitate a process of considering, in depth:

  • What happened, and why?
  • What is the root-cause of the failure?
  • Could we have done anything to prevent this failure? If so, what?
  • Is there a discernible pattern?
  • What, if anything, could we have done differently which has implications for future actions?
  • What information and support do we need to do this?

Personal strategies to manage failures

For each individual, success and failure are a part and parcel of everyday life, within a working context and outside it. But, some people are able to deal with failure more successfully than others and of course this skill and approach is fundamental to effective performance at work.

Each individual needs to build their own strategies to manage ups and downs. L&D can help suggest approaches and strategies, such as:

  • Separate the issue from the personal
  • Distinguish a failure from one’s identity
  • Avoid dwelling too much on the failure
  • Experiment with new ways to avoid repeating patterns of failure

In summary, L&D’s valuable role

L&D & HR professionals can play a valuable role in helping to build a climate that turns failures into success. This is no easy matter, especially in hierarchical and blame organisations but this positive approach to failure is likely to contribute to strengthen the foundations of the organisation and thereby give it a much greater chance of securing the organisation’s future.


About the authors

Sarah Cook is managing director of the strategic leadership and change management specialists, The Stairway Consultancy. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Customised Executive Development. Steve can be contacted by email on s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk. Sarah can be contacted by email on sarah@thestairway.co.uk


[1] Syed,Matthew, ‘Black Box Thinking’, John Murray, 10 Sept. 2015.

[2] ‘Roads to ruin: the analysis’ a study of major risk events: their origins, impact and implications. Report by Cass Business School on behalf of Airmic, 2011.

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