Innovation Habits – Learning from Failure and Success

Innovation will inevitably include failure, and usually repeated failure. Notorious examples include the many hundreds of prototype filaments, vacuums and designs tested by Thomas Edison and peers when developing the lightbulb, Edison tested over 6000 plant materials in search of the best material for a lightbulb filament [1].

But thankfully, innovation also includes success - where ideas are turned into something with sustainable value. Looking beyond the 19th century, when eventual successful innovations in power generation and distribution provided an electricity supply that brought light into people's homes, the increasingly rapid development of new ubiquitous technologies over the past two decades are also a measure of success. The combination of increased computing power, mobile communications, and the internet of things has transformed society - the unleashing of artificial intelligence applications is a case in point.

Of course, varying types and degrees of failure are inevitable in the pursuit of any endeavour, but with perseverance the journey will also involve successes along the way. But all too often, learning from failure is prioritised over learning from success based on the perception that success is a rare and singular event - evidenced by a medal, prize, or award.

However, during any venture people encounter success and failure to varying degrees. The reality is that success and failure are not binary singular events - they are relative at any moment in time - and not everyone looks at success and failure in the same way.

Running a marathon is a case in point. There will only ever be one winner for each type of marathon, but there will be tens of thousands that succeed using their own or their team's measures. Whether it be finishing time, money raised for charity, or just completing the 26.2 miles - success or failure is subjective and depends on context. One person's or team's success may be another's failure.

This tells us that it is the experience of learning, whether it be from success or failure, that is most important.

Learning is the real challenge

Truly learning from failure and success demands lessons are captured and then, most importantly, embedded in people's and organisation's memories. Like school, attending lessons is not enough for true learning - nor is the modern practice of occasional lessons learned meetings. The outcome of true learning must result in change - and change that sticks.

Habits that increase success want to be retained and habits that increase the likelihood of failure need to be broken. This leads to several challenges - not least since people have different learning styles and that even when learning takes place from failure and success, existing habits are hard to change.

One of the problems is that failure is often the most emotive issue and becomes a point of fixation. Most people and organisations are guilty at some point of consciously doing something that is not in their own or collective best interests, maybe on impulse or over a longer gestation period. Similarly, success is transient in nature and notable achievements can often be followed by failure, and then success, and then failure, and so on. When it comes to innovation, there are never any guarantees - serendipity and context will usually play a role that is rarely considered when looking to learn lessons.

Either way. the challenge becomes one of how to embed learning and exploring this challenge can be looked at from different angles based on how you and organisations learn.

People - Learning Styles

It is widely recognised that people learn in different ways, and some of the most common styles includes:

  • Visual Learning - where ideas are illustrated using pictures, films, graphics, images, etc. The learning can be most effective when people are engaged in the creation of the visualisation.
  • Auditory Learning - where listening and hearing information is the preferred style. It includes learning from not just what is said - but also how it is said.
  • Verbal - involving reasoning, solving problems and learning new 'languages' and vocabulary, which may be scientific or technical in nature.
  • Kinaesthetic - known as learning through doing involving action, experimentation and hands-on experience with products comprising hardware and software.
  • Logical - by identifying, recognising and connecting patterns and cataloguing - often described as 'joining the dots'.
  • Social - where interpersonal exchanges in a supportive and empathetic environment enhances the exchange of knowledge and expertise between people and increases shared learning.
  • Solitary - by undertaking activities such as independent research and analysis.

People learn using a combination of the above styles, but usually show a preference for one or two. Irrespective, it suddenly becomes clear that some approaches may not work for everyone - the traditional PRINCE project management approach to learning lessons based on the collective creation of registers, evidence gathering, analysis and review, may not be the most effective way of making learning stick at an organisational level.

Nonetheless, there may be a handful of people whose learning style suits this organisational approach (e.g. where visual, auditory, verbal and logical learning is the preferred style), but the risk to organisational learning is whether this is the majority, or a significant minority, and whether those that retain the learning stay in the organisation and in a role where it can be reapplied.

A learning process for individuals and organisations

Irrespective of learning style, learning from your own, your team's or your organisation's failures and successes requires objectivity - the ability to step back and examine what is working and what is not. Avoiding attachment to pre-formed ideas based on a sunk emotional investment, looking forward to what action might be taken next and why, and avoiding misplaced blame or reward will all increase the opportunity for learning.

So, when it comes to innovation at a practical level, how might you go about the learning challenge? Systems thinking, reducing the elapsed time between the event and the learning, and making a change are three key steps.

  1. Use systems thinking - this technique has been shown to increase objectivity and avoid the temptation to apportion blame or praise based on an immediate reaction to events in or near the moment. In 2023, the Government Office for Science in its updated Introduction to systems thinking for civil servants, described systems thinking as "A framework for seeing the interconnections in a system and a discipline for seeing and understanding the whole system". Adopting this mindset avoids identifying people, including yourself, as single points of failure or success. Success and failure are dependent on systems - context matters.
  2. Learn the lessons as soon as possible - one problem encountered in many projects is the length to time between the event that triggers an opportunity for learning, and the subsequent opportunity to demonstrate changes in practice. If the elapsed time between learning opportunities and the learning process is too long, learning opportunities can be lost. Individuals and teams forget the nuances over time or move on to different roles and projects leaving learning behind. New teams will then make the same mistakes and must re-learn, because learning has not been shared or embedded in new habits and routines.
  3. Make the change - objectivity and learning the lessons is not enough. Action is needed to make change - this is the key component to embed the learning. If the habits that led to success or failure in the past do not become the new business-as-usual for people and organisations, the likelihood of future failure or success will remain the same. You could strike lucky next time ... or maybe not.

Making the Change - Individuals

Following the discipline of systems thinking and learning lessons as soon as possible sets the context to change the learning habit. In effect, you or your organisation are laying the foundations for success.

So, given what sounds like a complex process, what are the most important tips for individuals:

  • Systems thinking to analyse a situation need not be a lengthy or complex exercise - you can make a start with a pen and paper, and it may just take 5 to 10 minutes to quickly analyse context (what makes up the system), its boundaries (what is not in the system), and interactions (how the different parts of the system interact). Remain objective so don't blame or praise yourself or others - look at how the system works.
  • When events happen take the opportunity to capture the lessons - the is something that people do instinctively. Things happen then people reflect on past events. As an individual, the change in habit is to jot down a few bullet points (3 work well) that led to the success or failure by examining the system context, boundaries and interactions. Use a combination of styles that work for you - pictures, written notes, talking to colleagues or finding a quiet spot. People's learning styles are different, there is no one best way. But do it within a couple of days - you may need a little longer but don't leave it too long. If you don't capture the lessons straightaway, put a short slot in your diary in the next week to finalise the 'lessons capture' task.
  • Identify what, if anything, you can do to change the system - then do it as soon as is reasonably possible. Only by doing will habits become embedded. If there is no opportunity to reuse your learning, accept there is a likelihood is it will be lost. Or think about who might benefit and share your learning.

Making the Change - Organisations

Organisational learning can follow the same approach, but the way the three steps are taken will be different. They will typically involve:

  • Pre-meeting or pre-workshop preparation
  • The meeting or workshop
  • Post-workshop action

So what are the tips for organisational learning.

  • Participants should use a systems thinking approach to prepare in advance and this need not be a lengthy or complex exercise - as with individual learning, people can make a start with a pen and paper to look at system context, boundaries, and interactions. Again, they should remain objective by not blaming or praising themselves or others. If information is to be gathered in advance more formally via forms or templates - keep it simple and ask open questions: What went well and why? What could have gone better and why? Any other thoughts?
  • When events happen take the opportunity to capture the lessons by scheduling meetings and/or workshops - the structure of the meeting or workshop is critical. Bearing in mind that people will have a combination of different learning styles, create an agenda and environment that contains several styles to help engage everyone. On timing, don't leave it too long - think in terms of days or one to two weeks.
  • Identify what, if anything, you can collectively and individually do to change the system - then do it, as a group, as soon as is reasonably possible. And repeat it - then repeat its again. The new interactions will become embedded, and sharing will increase the likelihood of retaining the learning in the corporate memory.

The type and structure of any meetings and workshops are critical. Here are some guidelines:

  • Try and keep the workshop to no more than 15 people, it could be as few as 4 or 5. If you think that more are needed, it may be that the scope of the lessons learned sessions needs to be divided up to break down the learning into more manageable chunks.
  • Start the meeting with a discussion about what attributes make up the system you are exploring. This may mean starting with a draft for a complex situation, or the system can be mapped out during the meeting for a simpler analysis.
  • Use a mix of styles to capture the lessons learned - notes, pictures, and verbatim quotes.
  • Review and discuss any quantitative data if available (e.g. service desk metrics, failure modes, etc.).
  • Flex the agenda to match the importance of the discussion - explore what matters in depth and courteously stop any discussions that are going down rabbit holes.
  • Create a realistic action plan of incremental change that can be piloted on a daily basis.
  • If the challenge is larger and needs more investment - spend the time to build an outline plan, including costs and benefits. Then, based on your understanding of internal stakeholders (e.g. their interest and influence), agree how the plan should be taken forward within your organisation.

When it comes to following up on the agreed action, the aims should be to set up a series of weekly 15-minute stand-up progress meetings (or similar) for a critical mass of workshop attendees for the following 4 weeks. Making this commitment can be hard but it is a measure of the commitment to organisational learning.

If there is something else more important, you may have to accept the learning may well be forgotten ...

Innovation Habits

Changing habits is hard - it means doing things differently and sticking with the new ways.

Stickiness is a challenge for not just individuals, but for organisations and industries – change initiatives often peter out over time and old unwanted habits return.

To help overcome this, we have identified 9 habits that anyone or any organisation can develop to increase innovation. But because changing habits is hard, it's best to start with only one, maybe two, and take some very small steps that just get you started. 

  • Create time to think at work
  • Challenge generalisations
  • Learn from failure and success
  • Exchange knowledge on multiple interests
  • Be curious about problems and their opportunities
  • Create something
  • Take something apart
  • Celebrate successes
  • Be a role model for positive habits

The first step might be challenging generalisations.


[1] How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley, 2020.