How to learn from failure and quit the blame game

After a setback occurs, you have two choices: blame someone, or get wiser. Executive coach Alisa Cohn explains why a 'learning lab' is more productive than pointing fingers.

Alisa Cohn: The thing about building a company is that inevitably things go wrong, and bad things happen.

You don’t want that to happen, you don’t anticipate when that happens, but it is inevitable in the lifecycle of any company.

When that happens the best way to react to that is to use it as a learning lab. Use it as an opportunity to call everybody together and really have a laboratory, have a workshop, have an understanding of: how do we unpack what happened and why it all happened with no blame but with understanding of the systems that got us here, and then how do we think about how do you respond right now together, and then how do you move forward from there, both in terms of establishing maybe new procedures, establishing some new policies, some even new ways of thinking, some new operational tactics, but then also this is equally important, how does the company and the CEO and the team around him or her successfully move on emotionally, kind of create a new point of view recognizing that that was in the past and there’s the future to look too? You can’t change the past, you can only change the future.

So the best way to debrief any bad thing that happened, any problem is just to go down the tiers of “Why.”

And so you start with—so let’s assume that the project that you’re working on is late, let’s assume it’s a product release, and that it is now definitely not going to make its deadline, and it’s probably three or six months late.

First of all it’s important just to create an environment where people can talk freely and not feel blamed, because we’re just debriefing to understand what happened.

So it’s about understanding the structure of it not looking to finger point.

But the first question is, why? So why was the release late? Well, engineering, for example, didn’t deliver the code on time.

Why didn’t engineering deliver the code on time? Because they weren’t given the specs early enough. Why weren’t they given the specs early enough? Because product didn’t get them to them early enough. Why didn’t product to get them to them early enough Because product didn’t understand from marketing the requirements early enough.

So if you keep going down those and you understand why did marketing not get them early enough, it’s because they didn’t have a good plan to get the customer data they needed to, then you can take a look at what went wrong here.

Is it about we need to tighten up our process (which is very often true, especially with startups)?

Is it that we need to have a better timeframe for deliverables (which is often very true when you’re working on complicated multi-domain projects)? Or do we just forecast incorrectly? Did we not take into account all the multiple steps that leads to the product release, and that’s often very true as well? And maybe why didn’t we take into account the multiple steps? Because there wasn’t one person in charge.

Great. So going forward we know that we need to all take into account the multiple steps, and declare one person the owner of the project overall, and let’s try those two interventions, those two changes, and that’s going to help us have more excellence in operations.

After a setback occurs, you have two choices: blame someone, or get wiser. Executive coach Alisa Cohn explains why it's important not to point fingers or shut down and never mention the fiasco again—tempting as that may be. Instead, it's critical to run a disaster debrief. By reframing the conversation as a 'learning lab' it can help defuse tension and build a stronger team that has found and fixed its weak spots. What is the key to running an excellent debrief after a failed project or difficult delivery? Using an example, Cohn explains why working down the multiple tiers of "why?" is so powerful when you're trying to learn actionable lessons from failure.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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