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.

Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.