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Leadership

3 Steps For Harnessing Failure The Right Way

Embracing failure works only when you fail at the right time. Here's how to ensure that happens.

[Photo: Flickr user Tom Dennis Radetzki]

Think back to your last project. Was it set up to maximize learning? Did you uncover valuable insights along the way? Did you deliver what you set out to? And once it was over, did your team reflect, or did you move straight to the next thing?

A systematic method for managing your projects can set up your team for useful epiphanies at every step. In the end, it can help you to create better deliverables with more lasting and further-reaching impact.

For many projects that aim to innovate, the goal is to learn by doing, but too often the doing doesn’t lead to learning. In the rush to get things done and meet deadlines, workplace project teams take action without effective planning and assessment, and the potential value of taking action is lost.

The Fail Better method harnesses the power of iteration by linking three sets of activities: launching your project with the right logic, team, and resources; building and refining your deliverables through testing and iteration; and then embedding what you’ve learned to improve your own practice, the habits of your team, and the capabilities of your organization.

By engaging in a focused set of simple activities in each of these areas, managers can help their teams achieve greater success, identify and scale failure earlier, develop important personal and team habits, and help others within and outside their organizations learn from what worked and what didn’t.

1. Launch Your Project

When you embark on a new team effort, you have a sense of the tasks, deadlines, and expected outputs that will occupy your team in the coming days, weeks, or months. As a manager, you likely have the basics of project management down. But can you go a step or two further by defining your project’s scope for innovation and experimentation—the domain in which your team will work, explore, fail, and ultimately deliver?

The goal of the Fail Better launch phase is not to over plan and set things in stone, but to consider your project in its context, anticipate outcomes as tied to a series of logical assumptions, pull together your resources, and get the right people involved.

You’ll begin by linking actions to outcomes by analyzing the project’s goals and rationale to create a shared map of how your team’s activities will create the results that lead to the outcomes you seek.

Next, you’ll marshal resources, accounting for the inputs and constraints that will shape the team’s choices about what to do.

Then, to build your team, you’ll develop an understanding of skills, capabilities, and assets each person brings as you prepare team members to take action and work together effectively.

2. Build And Refine through Iteration

Now that you’ve built the groundwork for your project, you have a clearer sense of the project’s goals, resources, and approach. As the project moves forward, it can be helpful to think of your project as a cauldron for experimentation and learning—in which you will plan, act, and assess to decide the next step.

Instead of thinking of your project as a monolithic effort toward the goal you’ve defined, approach your project in cycles or chunks. Iterate to build and refine as we suggest by linking three activities via a repeated action loop: planning, taking action, and then assessing what has just occurred to make a decision about the next step.

This process improves the chances that your failures will be small-scale and early rather than large and late. It also enables learning and refinement while allowing creative, or even seemingly outlandish, ideas to be explored. This loop is not designed to inhibit action by piling on additional work for the team—far from it. The goal is to harness the power of exploration while orienting your team toward action with a safety net in place. That safety net comes from intention, planning, and monitoring through data review and reflection.

You don’t have to perfect your plans, consider every possible scenario or option, or calculate every detail in advance. Instead, you’ll be iterating on your ideas by making repeated trips around the action loop. So rather than building your project around a one-shot effort, you can guide your team to an agile, responsive method of learning by doing. A team approach to tackling the key tasks and issues is crucial for this effort.

3. Embed The Learning

You’ve embarked on a project and led it to conclusion. What more is there to do? The final step is embedding what you’ve learned—from team processes to personal insights to larger project implications—so that you can share the lessons on a wider scale or apply them to future efforts.

From our work with everyone from students to CEOs, we know this is the most often overlooked aspect of effective action. Embedding the learning is really about what you do at the end of your project. The result of having developed plans and maps and then refined useful ideas via the action loop is a better set of deliverables.

But all the effort you put into the launch and iterate steps does more than generate a better report, product, design, plan, study, recommendation, or decision. It also teaches you how to do things better the next time around. How do you embed the learning you’ve achieved for yourself, your team, and your organization—and even benefit others beyond your organization?

The first form of embedding takes place within your team when you agree to new habits you will preserve and old ones you will drop. The results and discoveries from your project are also potentially valuable to others, but managers often invest little in sharing and syndicating insights, data, tools, and techniques at the end of a project. And finally, the experience provides an invaluable spur to your personal reflection by illuminating your own values, revealing strengths and weaknesses, and alerting you to specific ways you can more effectively lead, manage, innovate, and create change.

Failing Better Is Not Easy, But Its Rewards Are Clear

The Fail Better method of using projects as the crucible for learning provides both flexibility and guidance for the activities you’ll do to launch, iterate on, and embed your project’s contributions. The concepts underpinning our advice are not rocket science, but they are supported by research and best practice. And they are surprisingly rare in the hundreds of projects we have been able to study.

One reason is that nothing is free. Implementing Fail Better requires a commitment to the approach and an investment of your time, skill, and energy to begin experimenting. But ultimately, which is harder: learning too late, after the fact, that you made avoidable and costly mistakes, or creating habits and practices that scale failure at a level you can afford and help you complete and refine your deliverables along the way?

Anjali Sastry is senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Kara Penn is cofounder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, where she works on the front lines of practical management to implement new approaches in complex settings. They are authors of the new book, Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (HBR Press, November 2014), from which this article is adapted.

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