Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Celebrate Failure? [Part 2]

Earlier this year I wrote about Agile's perspective on failure. In that blog I indicated that my brother-in-law (a psychologist) sent me some of the latest research on failure. In particular, there were two fascinating studies that helped me understand why failure is indeed a cause for celebration. In the first part of this series I summarized the results of a study looking at the effects of failure and success in the orbital launch industry. In this blog post I'll look at some interesting research that examines the role of attitude when failure occurs.

Your attitude towards failure (and your organization's attitude) does matter.

A group of researchers led by Joel Albert Kahn set out to discover what the effect of failure norms - or attitudes towards failure would have on closing gaps in performance. Is failure enough incentive for an organization to find ways to improve or does their attitude towards that failure matter?

In an exploratory study they surveyed teams within an automotive manufacturer to look for teams that had both strong and weak "failure acceptance norms". A team with weak failure acceptance norms would be characterized by defensive attitudes when failure occurs. A team with strong failure acceptance norms would be characterized by team members that have an acceptance of failure as normal.

Using survey data they identified the teams with the strongest and weakest failure acceptance norms and then observed those teams over a two year period. What they found is that attitude mattered - the teams with the strongest failure acceptance norms were the teams that closed performance gaps the most effectively.

To those familiar with Carol Dweck's book "Mindset: The new Psychology of Success" or who have seen Linda Rising talk about her research, this should come as no surprise. According to this research, people generally find that they have one of two attitudes.

The first group of people believe that each person is either smart, or not smart - they have a fixed mindset. In this group failure is a strong indicator that you are not smart - they become defensive when failure occurs and gravitate towards easier tasks that allow them to be successful. This group has weak failure acceptance norms.

The second group of people believe that if you work hard you can improve and overcome problems - they have an agile mindset. In this group failure isn't an indicator of intelligence but rather a challenge to try again and work a little harder. This group has strong failure acceptance norms.

Interesting - Carol's research on individuals matches that of Kahn's research on organizations and teams.

One further note about Carol's research. She found that it was relatively simple to move people from the first group to the second. Our words can be powerful. When failure occurs, celebrate it as a learning opportunity!

To end this series I have a suggestion: The next time your team fails, promote an agile mindset and buy them a cake to celebrate:

Credit: www.cakewrecks.com
Further Reading:
- Linda's presentation on this topic
- Linda's keynote from Much Ado About Agile
- Carol's website: http://mindsetonline.com/
- A short video of Carol describing the effects of praise on children

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You can get the full research from your neighbourhood PhD student but here are a few more details on the studies mentioned above:

"Failure construction in organizations: Exploring the effects of failure norms - Kahn, Joel Albert, 1995, University of Michigan. School of Business Administration. 

Two exploratory studies were used in this research to develop an understanding of the effects of failure norms at an automotive manufacturer. Using the survey data, the two teams with the strongest and the three teams with the weakest failure acceptance norms were identified. These five teams were observed for two years and cause maps were collected from 31 members of the teams."

"Early models of organizations as rational systems assumed that a gap between what is expected of a performance and the performance as it actually occurs will stimulate a search for an alternative approach to a problem. An interpretive perspective, in which performance gaps are socially constructed, suggests that such a search is not the inevitable consequence of performance gaps. Instead, people interpret performance gaps defensively by retrospective rationalization and external attribution to avoid acknowledging failure. People will search for alternatives only when performance gaps are interpreted as failures and not when they are interpreted defensively. Whether or not people interpret performance gaps defensively is determined by norms that are communicated and enforced within an organization an that are considered binding within its teams. Thus, the central idea of this dissertation is that search is not an inevitable response to performance gaps as is often presumed. Instead, search is a response to failure only if people are encouraged to accept failure by strong acceptance norms. …it is the acceptance of failure (strong failure acceptance norms) that encourages the interpretation of performance gaps as failure."

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