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Where's That Lemonade Recipe?

June 2, 2010  

Even in the best of times, most of us would like to pretend a failed project never happened. And when something goes wrong in an economic downturn, there's an even stronger urge to ignore the misstep. But if you sweep a failure under the rug, you'll never learn what it can teach you, says Rita McGrath at Harvard Business Online.

"Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong," she argues. "Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead."

Your worst-case-scenario goal, therefore, might be an "intelligent" failure, McGrath suggests—with parameters like those defined by her colleague Sim Sitkin:

  • The outcome is genuinely uncertain, and cannot be known ahead of time.
  • Since the project is carefully planned, you know why something went wrong.
  • The damage is not so great that it spells disaster for the organization.
  • With a short time between outcome and interpretation, fallout from the failure can be quickly managed.
  • What you learn benefits other areas of the business.

"If your organization can approach uncertain decisions as experiments and adopt the idea of intelligently failing," concludes McGrath, "so much more can be learned (so much more quickly) than if failures or disappointments are covered up."

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