Shifting the stigma of learning from mistakes

How can we make it ok to learn from mistakes? Bethany Taylor and Jo Cook share an in-depth look at some of the research and ideas

Discussing failure is a challenging issue as it brings up personal emotions and the organisational physical cost and potential damage to brand and reputation. defines failure as a “lack of success”, “nonperformance”, “subnormal” and an “insufficiency”.

With such negative and emotive words it’s not surprising that this area is one to be careful with inside of organisations and conversations as it can come with a lot of baggage. We’ve all heard horror stories that resulted in instant dismissal, stagnated a career or even low-risk failures that limit receiving a bonus or raise.

Finger lickin’ good?

Moving from the personal, many times failures that occur in organisations can have consequences that cause long-term financial and reputational effects. The recent chicken chaos that gripped fast-food chain KFC came about due to a contract and supplier change and resulted in over half of their UK restaurants closing temporarily.

This was likely to have been a failure that was more than just one employee or one process, but the consequences were dire. No one likes to experience these negative consequences, especially those that can have far-reaching effects to the greater organisation.

There is a marked reluctance amongst many executives and employees to acknowledge their failures and to admit mistakes.

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay wrote previously for TJ  that “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.”

‘Turning a blind-eye’ to failures can both embed these reactions into the organisational culture and stigmatise it. This can also build a ‘blame culture’ where, when confronted, the responsibility for failure is shifted onto others or external events.

People within the organisation work harder to cover themselves from being blamed rather than take risks, and in some cases actively limit their opportunities.

Less risk taking, change or innovation means that the organisation will not grow. Organisations will continue to see the same failures occurring, will not learn from these failures and may even remain ignorant to any change ideas.

Failure to innovate

In “a 2014 poll by Deloitte of CEO’s, 80% said: ‘Innovation is critical to success and we’re trying to get better at it’ but only 30% of leaders agreed, ‘We are good at innovation’ and only 10% of companies say they actually succeed at innovation.”

This comment from Design Thinking expert and Olympic Medalist John K. Coyle highlights the potential impact of not pushing some boundaries – but if we don’t push we can’t fail. The emotional and social element of failure is incredibly strong, often contributing to failure in its own right. The Journal of Business Venturing published a paper about the stigma of failure for entrepreneurs.

It found that the stigmatisation as a “process begins before, not after, failure and contributes to venture demise… That stigmatisation ultimately triggers epiphanies or deep personal insights which transform entrepreneurs’ view of failure from a very negative to a positive life experience. This transformation results in entrepreneurs distributing learning from failure to the founding of future ventures, even when ventures are not their own.”

A productive process

“Productive failure” allows for failure to occur earlier and result in outperforming those who are led by direct instruction.

Kapur and Bielaczyc describe productive failures that are situations in which there is a problem or learning environment that requires people to explore options and and then consolidate their own understanding.

“Productive failure” allows for failure to occur earlier and result in outperforming those who are led by direct instruction. For example, this can be a project where a problem needs to be solved with little further explanation or guidance provided and the end goal is the only benchmark.

Success is defined as the movement through the problem solving process and the reflection on decisions made.

Designing for learning to include productive failures should mean working with complex problems that are challenging but not frustrating, to allow exploration and elaboration and then provide ways to reflect. Examples of working with productive failure can be seen in game mechanics.

In game mechanics the goal is to teach players how to play the game by providing scalable problem-solving with plenty of room for failure – making it really easy at first and gradually more difficult. The failure of the player’s strategy will provide the space for them to try again with different methods.

Each problem will increase in complexity as the player increases in skill. Litts and Ramirez state that failure in games is valuable and sought after, not the end to learning, and should not be stigmatized.

Reframing failure

How failure is defined within an organisation is essential. Starting with a common definition is the only way an organisation can define its success. Dyan Williams highlights what we can do to define failure differently. She believes that failure can be re-framed by:

  • claiming appropriate responsibility for your role in the failure, make sure you understand the difference between your role and what couldn’t be controlled.
  • feeling and reflecting before you move on, to make sure you’re fully experiencing the results of the failure.
  • admitting your role in the failure allows a release of your energy to reframe your next steps.
  • taking effective action by setting out clear action steps, so that you are not just ‘trying’ but doing.

Amy Anderson also spoke to this when she defined mistakes as a official company policy: “Making any mistake once was OK, so long as it was an honest mistake made while attempting to do what they felt was the right thing. Making any mistake once was OK, but repeating that same mistake a second time was NOT OK.”

Not only did she create the official company policy for mistakes, she also made sure to determine the areas that were too risky to apply this policy without involving higher executives. This ensures that the risk does not have the ability to directly affect their customers’ trust.

Making mistakes or failing can both be the indicators that new ideas and innovation exist. This process of re-defining failure makes sure that discovery and learning are occurring along with success.

But how do you redefine failure at your organisation? Is it enough to speak out about a new ‘policy’? We can take some pointers from the actions of other organisations to create experiences that define failure differently and then provide the freedom to actually begin using the new definition.

Happy mistakes

TJ columnist Henry Stewart speaks to eight different companies that celebrate mistakes, that ranged from Intuit presenting an award for Best Failure and holding ‘failure parties’ to Google rewarding the team of Google Wave (which closed a year after launch).

Stewart also speaks to large companies that all use time for reflection. GCHQ have one day each month set-aside to innovate, where all emails, meetings and tasks are paused so people can take advantage of this time.

You are hereby authorised to screw up, bomb or fail… and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.

Smith College has a failure certificate implemented by Rachel Simmons, the unofficial ‘failure czar’ and leadership development specialist at the Centre for Work and Life. When enrolled in her program, students receive a “permission slip to fail.”

This slip says: “You are hereby authorised to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hook-ups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

Design and innovation expert Tom Kelley suggests “casting things as an experiment… [it] sets a different kind of social contract.”

And strategy director Peter Thomson states that “a failed project is simply referred to as ‘validated learning’ and used as input for the next project. A failure is only really a failure if you use it as an excuse to give up.”

Corporate Rebels even suggest the recipe for a f***-up night where everyone gathers in one place, stands up one-by-one to state their mistakes to everyone, then they answer three questions:

  1. What did you fail at?
  2. How did you cope with it?
  3. What would you do differently?

Then everyone celebrates the mistake with a rowdy round of applause and some toasts.

Whether you decide to have a certificate or champagne evening to celebrate failure is up to you, but perhaps just changing your thinking about your own mistakes and those of others can be a great start.

About the authors

Bethany Taylor is Global Digital Learning Advisor at Costa Coffee and can be contacted through Twitter @BethanyLearns

Jo Cook is the deputy editor of TJ and can be contacted at

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