Saturday 25 June 2016

How to really learn from failure (or a relative lack of success)

If you are an evidence-based practitioner, school research lead or senior leader wishing to maximise your learning from failure, then this post is for you.   Given the disappointment surrounding both the Rochdale Research Into Practice and the Ashford Research Champion EEF evaluation reports on the effectiveness of the role of research champions in helping transfer research into practice – there is a pressing need to have a structured approach to learn from failure (or relative lack of success).  With that in mind, this post will draw upon the work of Birkenshaw and Haas (2016) who have recently outlined a three step approach by which organisations can maximise their return from failure
Increase your return on failure

Birkinshaw and Haas begin by stating that:    one of the most important and most deeply entrenched reasons why established companies struggle to grow is fear of failure…. (with) a risk-averse culture as key obstacle to innovation (p90).   As such they propose three steps by which an organisation can raise its return on failure.

First, study individual projects that did not pan out and gathers as many insights as possible from them.  Second, crystallise those insights and spread them across the organisation.  Third.  do a corporate level survey to make sure that your overall approach is yielding all the benefits it should

Let’s now look at these steps in turn

Step1 Learn from every failure

The first step involves getting colleagues to look back on interventions and innovations which have not been successful.  Birkenshaw and Haas argue that for many organisations (and individuals) this does not come naturally, with colleagues expressing a preference to look to the future and not back to the past.  To help people ask the right questions about failed initiatives Birkenshaw and Haas have developed a worksheet which identifies all the sources of costs and benefits which might come about from a failed projects.    I have amended this worksheet so that it sits more easily within a school context.


Even when initiatives flop, they can still provide tremendous value to your organization—if you examine them carefully and capture the critical lessons. This template will help you do that

Briefly describe a recent failed project or activity you were involved in:


What have we learned about our pupils’, pupils’ parents and staff needs and preferences and our current school context?
Should we change any of our assumptions?

What were the financial costs of the project - staffing, materials and capital?

What insights have we gained into future of the school? 
How should we adjust our school development plan?

What were the external costs? 
Did we hurt the school’s reputation in the local area or nationally?
Have we weakened our position to attract pupils, staff and funding?

What have we discovered about the way we work together? 
How effective are our school processes, structure, and culture?

What were the internal costs? 
Did the project damage school/team morale or co too much attention at the expenses of other projects? 
Was there any cultural fallout?

How did we grow our skills individually and as a team? 
Did the project increase relational trust and goodwill? 
Were any developmental needs highlighted?

Key insights and take-aways

Amended from Birkinshaw and Haas (2016) p92

Step 2 Share the lessons

Birkenshaw and Haas go on to argue that that the real organisational (school) benefit from failure comes when the learning from that failure is shared across the organisation.  As such, it is argued that This requires the organisation (school)  to build in a cycle of review, which allows the lessons from failure to contribute into existing processes.   Furthermore, by having difficult but positive conversations about failure this creates the conditions to generate relational trust, which creates the conditions by which colleagues may wish to be involved in more difficult and challenging projects.   Birkenshaw and Haas argue that organisational leaders need to be brought together on a regular basis to discuss their failures, and they suggest the use of what they call the Triple F process. 
  •         Reviews are FAST and to the point
  •        Take place FREQUENTLY, through good times and bad
  •         Are FORWARD looking, with an emphasis on learning (p92) 

Step 3 Review your pattern of failure

This involves taking an overview to see whether the organisational  approach to failure is making the most of the opportunities for learning.  Is the organisation learning from every new innovation which it has introduced over the last year?  Is the organisation learning from every unsuccessful intervention or innovation?  Are the lessons from failure being shared across the organisation?

And some final words

For those of use interested in transferring research into practice is not going to be a quick and easy task, and is likely to involve more failures than successes.  However, if we are to make the most of the failures (or relative lack of success) , then ensuring that we learn from such failures maybe some of the most important work that we can do. Having a structured approach to learning from failure, may be necessary but not sufficient conditions to help bring about the development of an evidence-based profession. 


Birkinshaw, J. and Haas, M., 2016. Increase your return on failure. Harvard business review, 94(5), pp.88-93.