Learning the lessons of failure

One of the activities our institutions should regularly engage in is a candid debriefing of the experiments we are trying.

The idea had much to commend it. It was strategic, savvy, innovative and forward-looking. Upon hearing it, it was the kind of idea that made you ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Yet, despite its compelling promise, despite the hard work and long hours of a passionate team, the idea had difficulty gaining traction. There were some successes and scores of obstacles. In every step forward, there was a setback waiting to be discovered. Though the idea may have been brilliant and the execution well-intentioned and competent, in the end the results were disappointing, and the project was abandoned.

This is not an uncommon experience in institutional life, particularly in institutions that value the kind of risk-taking entrepreneurship that is necessary to practice traditioned innovation and achieve long-term sustainability. Ideas are tried and tested through experiments. Some succeed; others fail, and the results may or may not be a referendum on the quality of the idea or the capacity of the team assembled to execute it.

How would we know?

Institutionally, the most difficult part of experimentation may not be in the labor toward success, though that is a challenge. The most difficult part may be in ensuring that the institution learns the right lessons from an experiment to carry forward.

Even in institutions that truly value experimentation, institutional inertia can have us go from experiment to experiment in rapid succession. Our institutions need to produce successes, especially when financial resources are scarce and so any delay in rolling out the next experiment is problematic and costly. But this makes it too easy to move away rapidly from a failed experiment before learning its lessons.

It’s for this reason that I believe the insights of my colleagues Greg Jones, Kelly Gilmer and Kavin Rowe about experimentation and failure are so important. They have pointed all of us to the model of the morbidity and mortality conferences within medicine as a helpful example for congregations and other Christian institutions to learn from failed (or fledgling) experiments. These meetings allow physicians the opportunity to tell the truth of what went wrong in patient care without judgment or fear. They are designed to be times of candid learning.

My colleague Nancy James tells me that, in the corporate world, there are gatherings often called “after-action reviews.” She reports that businesses will often have “in-action reviews” to see how experiments are performing against benchmark goals and other markers of success, and then, there is the “after-action review” at the end of an experiment to assess the whole thing. Like the M&M conference in medicine, “after-actions” are designed to prompt and promote learning both within the team leading an experiment and across entire organizations.

Dave Odom argues that activities shape habits and mindsets within institutions, so one of the activities our institutions should regularly engage in is a candid debriefing of the experiments we are trying. Making such a practice routine removes judgment from a failed experiment. Making it a predictable part of our institutional culture ensures that successes can be shared with one another without bragging or boasting. We are simply learning together about what it means to serve today, about what works and what doesn’t.

The best ideas -- those that have much to commend them -- don’t always work in practice, and why don’t they? Well that takes time to discover and to learn, and the practice of figuring it out should be a hallmark of our life together.