The 4 Questions Leaders Ask to Turn a Failure Into a Learning

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“Let’s put this into our learning bucket, and move on.”

If you’re a leader you have no doubt uttered this phrase when a project has not achieved its goal.

But to truly put a failure into the learning bucket requires more than just a slogan. The reality is, the most effective leaders know that translating failure into tangible learnings begins by addressing four critical questions:

1. Was the failure primarily due to external forces?

2. Did we have the wrong strategy?

3. Was the problem one of execution?

4. Was it a bad goal?

Let’s break that down…

1. Was the failure primarily due to external forces?

Sometimes the blame for a failure can be laid squarely at the feet of dynamics outside your control.

  • A freak storm caused needed shipments to be delayed.
  • A vital supplier unexpectedly went out of business.

In truth, I have found that fewer than 10% of project failures can really be attributed to such external factors. But these things can happen. When they do, acknowledge it, and move on.

2. Did we have the wrong strategy?

When you were setting the goal for the project, chances are you and your team had several possible strategies to consider, and you made your best decision on the plan you chose.

Maybe it was the wrong strategy.

If so, ask yourself, and your team,

  • “What was wrong with the plan we went with?”
  • “What would we do differently next time?”

3. Was the problem one of execution?

Maybe the plan was the right one, it simply wasn’t properly executed.

If the team wasn’t properly aligned, kept on task, or properly resourced, those are leadership issues that likely fall at your feet.

You just need to raise your hand and say to your team, “This one is on me. I need to do better.”

4. Was it a bad goal?

Maybe you had a great plan. Maybe it was executed to perfection.

If you still missed your goal, consider the possibility that it was simply a bad goal.

It could be that there was simply no way that the stated goal could be achieved in the timeframe, or with the given resources available.

If that’s the case, use the experience to help establish more realistic targets in the future.

Every team will experience setbacks. Not every project will hit the mark. There will be failures.

The key is to go beyond simply saying, “Let’s learn from this.”

Start by asking these four questions.

And start really filling your learning bucket.


the author

Scott Cochrane

Vice President- International, Global Leadership Network. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave, Willow, Olive & Charlie and John, Fiona, Will & Harvey. Lifelong learner.

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