How to Really Learn from Failure



If you are an evidence-based practitioner, school research lead or senior leader wishing to maximise your learning from failure, then this post is for you. Given the disappointment surrounding both the Rochdale Research Into Practice and the Ashford Research Champion EEF evaluation reports on the effectiveness of the role of research champions in helping transfer research into practice – there is a pressing need to have a structured approach to learn from failure.  With that in mind, this post will draw upon the work of Birkenshaw and Haas (2016) who have recently outlined a three step approach by which organisations can maximise their return from failure.

Increase Your Return on Failure

Birkinshaw and Haas begin by stating that: one of the most important and most deeply entrenched reasons why established companies struggle to grow is fear of failure…. (with) a risk-averse culture as key obstacle to innovation. As such they propose three steps by which an organisation can raise its return on failure.

First, study individual projects that did not pan out and gather as many insights as possible from them. Second, crystallise those insights and spread them across the organisation. Third, complete a corporate level survey to make sure that your overall approach is yielding all the benefits it should.

Let’s now look at these steps in turn…

Step One: Learn from Every Failure

The first step involves getting colleagues to look back on interventions and innovations which have not been successful. Birkenshaw and Haas argue that for many organisations (and individuals) this does not come naturally, with colleagues expressing a preference to look to the future and not back to the past. In order to help people ask the right questions about failed initiatives, Birkenshaw and Haas have developed a worksheet which identifies all the sources of costs and benefits which might come about from a failed project. I have amended this worksheet so that it sits more easily within a school context which you can download by clicking he ‘Download PDF’ button at the top right of this page.

Step Two: Share the Lessons

Birkenshaw and Haas go on to argue that that real organisational (school) benefit from failure comes when the lessons learned from that failure are shared across the organisation.  This requires the organisation (school) to build in a cycle of review, which allows the lessons from failure to contribute into existing processes. Furthermore, by having difficult but positive conversations about failure this builds up relational trust, which creates the conditions by which colleagues may wish to be involved in more difficult and challenging projects. Birkenshaw and Haas argue that organisational leaders are brought together on a regular basis to discuss their failures, and they suggest the use of what they call the Triple F process.

  • Reviews are FAST and to the point.
  • Take place FREQUENTLY, through good times and bad.
  • Are FORWARD looking, with an emphasis on learning.

Step Three: Review Your Pattern of Failure

This involves taking an organisational level overview to see whether the organisational approach to failure is working. Is the organisation learning from every new innovation which it has introduced over the last year? Is the organisation learning from every unsuccessful intervention or innovation?  Are the lessons from failure being shared across the organisation?


For those of use interested in transferring research into practice e is not going to be a quick and easy task, and is likely to involve more failures than successes. However, if we are to make the most of the failures, then ensuring that we learn from such failures maybe some of the most important work that we can do. Having a structured approach to learning from failure, may be necessary but not sufficient conditions to help bring about the development of an evidence-based profession.


Birkinshaw, J. and Haas, M., 2016. Increase your return on failure. Harvard business review, 94(5), pp.88-93.

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