August 12th 2015
Learning From Failure: Four Steps to Successful Post-Mission Analysis

Don't ignore your failures. Instead, follow these 4 tips for creating a post-mission analysis that can connect your past failure to future success.

This article was originally published on American Express OPEN Forum.

In my senior year of college, my roommates and I applied for several hundred jobs. In response, we received dozens of rejection letters—and we pondered the possibility of having to return to our parents’ basements. But rather than let the failure beat us down, we embraced it. We covered our walls with the rejection letters. The day before graduation, we took a picture in front of the wall and vowed to keep moving forward.

Failure can be your best teacher, helping you grow from your choices and approach life fearlessly. This is more than just a fluffy mantra; it’s a proven business model.

After all, failure happens in all businesses, but people often are too afraid to tell you about it. By creating a culture of learning, you can overcome this reluctance and encourage regular analysis and improvement. When senior management is open and honest about mistakes, that openness trickles down to the rest of the company. Once you get people to be honest about failure, you can create a process for conducting post-mission analyses to improve all aspects of your business.

These analyses are deep studies to uncover the successes and failures of missions or initiatives. By employing this tactic in your business, you can encourage a learning culture and spur improvement. Here are four steps you can take to institute your own post-mission analysis.

Take the Process Seriously

You might be tempted to analyze your failures in passing or relegate the process to an email chain. Don’t make those mistakes. Instead, schedule a meeting for your post-mission analysis. By treating it as a serious process, your staff will pay more attention, and you’re more likely to uncover—and correct—the root causes of failures.

Don’t Play the Blame Game

There’s a fine line between playing the blame game and not holding anyone responsible for mistakes. Neither of those extremes is productive, so you should review what worked and what didn’t in an objective fashion. For example, instead of saying, “Jenna forgot to put company names on the badges at the event,” you might say, “Without company names, our salespeople couldn’t excel in their roles.” Taking people out of the equation is a much more productive way to review mistakes.A few years ago, we ran into problems with our hiring process and conducted a post-mission analysis to get to the root of the problem. We found that, although we hired some great culture fits, some new employees simply couldn’t do the work. We assessed where the process failed without pointing fingers. After adopting a more proactive and thorough process, our hiring has improved dramatically.

Focus on Improvement

Once you’ve identified your failures, talk about what should be done differently the next time. Again, remember to curb the blame. This ensures you're focused on the real goal of the analysis: to improve your operations.

I remember an instance in which a client led us to change how we approach sales. We felt like we knew the company’s issues inside and out from past experiences, and we proceeded to talk to the CEO for 20 minutes, telling him what we knew and how we could help. The CEO rightly pointed out that we had made a bunch of assumptions without stopping to ask what he needed or wanted.

We never made that mistake again. We instituted a policy to ask clients open-ended questions about their needs. Even a small change in response to failure can make a world of difference.

Encourage Accountability 

In the same way that it’s difficult to avoid blaming specific people for your company’s mistakes, it’s also a challenge to get your employees to take ownership of problems. Your team members will probably assume that taking responsibility for a problem means they’re at fault, so it’s up to you to make them feel comfortable and focus on doing things better going forward.

Encourage your employees to take responsibility for making necessary changes to improve operations, and have them report results to you. Schedule a time to reconvene as a group to assess the situation and decide whether additional steps are necessary.

My college roommates and I displayed our rejection letters like most people would show off their diplomas. We did this because we knew we’d be more successful in the long run if our failures were out in the open. You won’t learn from failure if you sweep it under the rug, so focus on the future by using past lessons to fuel company improvement.