We learn more from studying successes than we do from studying failure. I have become convinced of this from my experience evaluating many change interventions in many different types of organizations. However, a case can be made for both. We can see this in the contrast between the approach of columnists Dan and Chip Heath and that of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.
The Heaths, in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, make the case for keeping the focus on success. They show how a focus on success, what they call “bright spots”, resulted in improving the nutrition of rural villagers in Vietnam, improving the behavior of a troubled ninth-grader, and improving sales of an effective drug for treating asthma. Humans have a strong tendency to gravitate to things-gone-wrong when the best course of action often is to learn from things-gone-right. The Heaths write:
Our focus, in times of change, goes instinctively to the problems at hand. What's broken and how do we fix it? This troubleshooting mind-set serves us well -- most of the time. If you run a nuclear power plant and your diagnostics turn up a disturbing signal once per month, you should most certainly obsess about it and fix the problem. And if your child brings home a report card with five As and one F, it makes sense to freak out about the F.
But in times of change, this mind-set will backfire. If we need to make major changes, then (by definition) we don't have a near-spotless report card. A lot of things are probably wrong. The "report card" for our diet, or our marriage, or our business, is full of Cs and Ds and Fs. So if you ask yourself, What's broken and how do I fix it?, you'll simply spin your wheels. You'll spend a lot of time agonizing over issues that are TBU [true but useless].
When it's time to change, we must look for bright spots -- the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What's working and how can we do more of it?
However, there is a time to learn from failure. Amy Edmondson makes this case in a recent article in Harvard Business Review and in a podcast interview. She argues that most managers don’t know how to learn from failure. She cites the Columbia Shuttle disaster as an example. She says that in order to learn from failure, leaders must create an environment that makes it safe for people to speak up when they notice problems. She writes that managers have misguided beliefs about failure:
First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new product”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons.
This focus on failure might be necessary when reviewing disasters and developing products. However, when evaluating behavior change in individuals, teams, and organizations, usually much more can be gained from a focus on success. People can explain why they changed their behavior much more readily than why they didn’t change. And they’re much more willing to talk and much more honest about successes than failures given the human propensity to negatively judge people who are not successful.