Tech Leader Strategies For Learning From Failure

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Steve Taplin

Tech Leader Strategies For Learning From Failure

Leaders entrusted with overseeing digital transformation projects in any company have a myriad of challenges to overcome. They need to build a vision and bring everyone on board. CIOs especially have to manage budgets, talent, processes, and data, as well as respond to competition. A lot can go wrong and mistakes aren’t uncommon. But leaders agree that failure can be a learning opportunity.

Organizations spend hours reviewing past projects to find areas for improvement. They look at customer reviews, project notes, and employee feedback for clues on what to improve. Yet, often, such efforts don’t result in meaningful improvement.

According to Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School, organizations are thinking about failure the wrong way. Edmondson provides a model for classifying failures. She offers three categories: preventable, complexity-related and intelligent.

Classifying Failure

Leaders who are overseeing technology projects need to anticipate each of these types of failures. Such awareness helps leaders respond effectively to mistakes because not all mistakes need reprimanding or blame apportionment.

Preventable failures happen when employees steer away from instructions. The best way to hedge against preventable failure is through regular training. However, a culture of diligence makes employees become conscientious about work. Tech leaders today not only need technical skills, but they also need the ability to inspire people to work in a certain style.

Complexity-related failures are common in situations in which employees are dealing with unique circumstances. Take, for instance, a software development project being undertaken in a jurisdiction without robust data laws. If new laws come into force suddenly, tech companies may have several run-ins with the authorities as they adapt to the changes.

Complexity-related failures are best prevented through the adoption of industry and company best practices to help employees make situational judgment calls. Organizations should take each complexity-related failure as a learning moment and challenge their employees to draw lessons from them.

Intelligent failures result from teams trying to innovate. The digital transformation path of any company is full of uncertainty. Technology evolves fast, and it’s not always clear how it may or may not affect a business. Failure may result from experimenting with new technology, strategies and products or from trying to reach new markets. Organizations should strive to make intelligent failures quickly and without jeopardizing their financial positions.

Fostering A Culture Of Learning From Failure

Being able to learn from failure relies heavily on culture. Organizations that are undergoing digital transformation need to be bold about trying out new ways of doing things. Employees need reassurance that the organization will not punish them for attempting to innovate.

One way to instill a culture of learning is to create a system that rewards innovativeness. Tying rewards to effort as opposed to just results frees people from the fear of failure. A second way would be to have discussions on failure different from how most organizations do it. Instead of asking, “Who did this?” when investigating a failure, the attention should be on “What happened?” People are much more comfortable reviewing events without guns being pointed at them.

Language has a powerful effect on culture. A leader who admits to their own shortcomings is likely to make people more comfortable about experimenting. People need some psychological safety before admitting they made a mistake. Leaders create this space by appearing human and embracing their mistakes.

Planning For A Digital Transformation Project

Successful digital transformation projects are a product of careful planning and execution. In many cases, there needs to be a review of existing systems and their weaknesses. During this review, shortcomings are classifiable as we’ve seen above.

The transformation process, too, will have its own challenges. Some can be prevented through training staff and referring to manuals. However, others need more than just training. People develop good decision-making skills by adopting best practices and studying business cases. Internal collaboration, when making important strategic decisions, can help minimize mistakes.

Lastly, consider working with a consultant who has previously handled big technology projects and can help plan for challenges and prevent mistakes. If you’re planning a major digital transformation project, for example, you may want to reach out to a U.S.-based consulting firm that understands the complexities of the local business environment to help you along the way.

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