How do huge institutions learn how to learn from failure?

Great question! I have been working with the World Bank since last October on this question. I gave a presentation on “Lessons (Not Yet) Learned” to a not-so-eager World Bank audience on the topic back then. You can watch the talk at:

That month, the new president of the Bank, Jim Yong Kim, made a call for the international development community to get better at learning from failure:

“Historically, development institutions have been reluctant to acknowledge failures, much less analyze them publicly. How can we avoid repeating past mistakes, if we don’t talk about those mistakes openly? I want the World Bank Group to set an example for the development community.”  — Jim Yong Kim, 10/9/12, World Knowledge Forum, Seoul, Korea

Following that, I moderated an internationally webcast session for President Kim on the topic in December. I have worked on several events since then, including an EL Table “deep dive” conversation to dig into one of several common cause of project failures and identify solutions on-the-ground and for the institution.

This month, an internal World Bank Community of Practice on “Knowledge Hubs” is hosting a month-long conversation on the subject. They asked me to contribute a blog about what it takes for huge institutions to learn from failure. I share that posting here with their approval and encouragement:

This may seem like a controversial example, but I thought it would be a useful conversation-starter to share a story from my first-hand research on an organization that has been through the kind of transformation that some large international development institutions hope to make.

I once befriended a Lt Colonel in the US Army. He was a smart guy. He had grown up in the Army and seen it transform from a “yes sir, how high sir” institution to one that, by and large, valued the humility it takes to learn from failure. One impetus for this shift was the Vietnam War and the Army’s eagerness not to have to learn that lesson ever again.

What I learned from my friend was quite remarkable. He was a cavalry officer. One of his favorite sayings was this: “If you give me a soldier who comes to me with a stellar record, but keeps riding the same horse he came in on, I’m going to see that his career goes nowhere. But if you give me a young soldier who is completely green but is willing to learn from his mistakes and I see the learning curve going upwards, I’m going to make sure he gets promoted.”

That sentiment was not unique to my friend. While there are still lots of places in that huge institution where “no news is good news,” the cultural norm has changed to one where talking about failure is not a career-ender. But it’s not just a soldier’s willingness to talk about failure that earns him or her credit – it’s his or her ability to learn from that failure that earns points. The Army’s After Action Review process, which got started back in the 1980’s, trained soldiers to be able to say, with humility, “Here is what I did today that I think was successful and here’s why. Here is what I did today that I think was a failure and here is what I learned from it and what I’m going to do differently tomorrow.”

We conducted research on the evolution of the After Action Review (see “Learning in the Thick of it,” Harvard Business Review, July/Aug 2005), the primary tool the US Army uses to learn from experience (both failures and successes). We sat down with three 20-year-old soldiers and asked them, “What if the Army told you to stop doing After Action Reviews?” Their response was immediate: “That would be the stupidest decision the Army ever made.”

How did this huge institution transform? It did not take place over night. And as we all know, like with any large institution, it is not a uniform success. Importantly, it has also taken the retirement of generations of leaders to transform as an institution.

The transformation took hold because units of soldiers on the ground started to perform to a standard that was head and shoulders above their peers, not because senior leaders suddenly changed their own behavior.

In a sense, what made the transformation possible was the message that came from leaders that “we need to change and you need to help us do it.” Even if those in command at the time didn’t really understand what they were asking for, they knew well enough to ask for it.

On the other end of the command chain, those soldiers in the field knew they needed to change, for the sake of the soldiers to their left and right. Lives were at stake, and they could not afford to take the stance that “I’ll do it when I see my boss doing it.”

So that’s my very simple answer to a very big question: Huge institutions don’t as a rule transform because they get driven from the top down or because senior leaders suddenly, magically, change their behavior. They transform because brave people inside of the institution see that they could do better and that they must do better, and are willing to take a risk to experiment with something different. And the people they report to are willing to let them try something new, even if they don’t quite understand what new looks like.

We would be very interested in hearing from others who have seen similar kinds of transformations in other large institutions.

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