Friday, October 24, 2008

Learning from Success and Failure

Many companies are conducting post-mortems these days. They are reviewing their failures, asking what went wrong, and trying to come up with corrective actions for the future. However, firms should remember that comparison helps to protect against spurious conclusions. When we study a single project, it becomes rather easy to jump to conclusions as to what factors contributed to that outcome. However, we may not have identified the correct cause-effect relationship; we can easiliy attribute a failure to the wrong causes and factors.

Research suggests that we learn more effectively if we compare successes and failures, rather than only examining our failures. Consider the work of Tel Aviv University scholars Schmuel Ellis and Inbar Davidi, who examined after-event reviews conducted by the Israeli military. They compared soldiers who conducted after-event reviews after successful and unsuccessful navigation exercises with soldiers who only reviewed failures. Ellis and Davidi found that soldiers who studied successes and failures performed better on subsequent missions than those who only studied failures. The two scholars argued that “contemplation of successful events stimulated the learners to generate more hypotheses about their performance.”

The implication is that, as firms study their failures these days, they should be systematically comparing the failures to past successes. Comparison and contrast will protect against spurious conclusions, and it will help refine their lessons learned.