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Failure is not the best teacher

Post Mortem

A few months ago I was called in at short notice to help a client turn around a major project that was going badly wrong. Three weeks later, once we were through the worst, the project leader turned to me and said “Thank God it’s back on track; at least we’ll escape the full post-mortem”.

It sounded depressingly familiar.

Hers, like a lot of businesses, is one where successes are “thanked and banked” whilst failures are forensically pulled apart. And what’s euphemistically called a “learning review” is more like a trial by jury. And it’s incredibly destructive.

Yes, you should learn from failure, but contrary to popular belief, failure is not the best teacher.

At best you will learn how not to fail in the same way in the future. At worst you will create a culture where your people will avoid risk, and in their haste to avoid failure, will fail all the more. I call it DTPES: Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant Syndrome.

The best way to learn how to be successful is to study success, and in any given month, most businesses have far more successes than failures. So I’m offering you a new phrase to add to your Latin dictionary: post natum, meaning after birth.

A post mortem has three questions: what when wrong, why, and how can we avoid it in future. A post natum also has three questions: what went well, why, and how can we replicate it in future.

So next time you have a success, do more than simply recognising the achievement and thanking those involved. Turn out the inquisitors and do a genuine learning review. You’ll get far more value and far more engagement from it than you’ve ever got from a post-mortem.

Bottom Line: The German comedian Henning Wehn tells a joke about a British couple who adopt a German baby, who doesn’t talk. After several tests they find nothing wrong with the baby, but when he is five he is served apple strudel, and the child says: "This strudel is cold." The astonished parents ask the child why he’d not said anything for all this time and the child says: "Up until now everything had been satisfactory."

That’s what a post-mortem culture feels like.

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