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Why Organizations Forget What They Learn from Project Failures

Mistakes are seldom the end of the world. In fact, mistakes often provide wonderful learning opportunities for organizations to grow. What becomes a problem is when organizations forget what they have learned from project failures and go back to making the same mistakes. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Francisco Polidoro Jr. explores why businesses so quickly become amnesiacs.

What Do You Remember?

NASA unfortunately provides a quintessential example of lessons learned and forgotten from project failures. After the Challenger exploded in 1986 because of a faulty part, the organization took the right steps to rectify the problem and prevent another catastrophe. For example, they increased their safety personnel and improved their safety procedures. Unfortunately, this diligence eroded over time as familiar old pressures to meet launch dates reemerged, ultimately resulting in the Columbia disaster in 2003. With stakes this high, it is almost ridiculous how quickly organizations forget what they have learned from project failures.

When disaster strikes, it triggers the “learning cycle.” Safety becomes a primary concern for the organization. The problem is that, over time, these safety measures become less important because of other pressing issues. These new priorities overshadow safety, and a new disaster occurs. The original error is driven by external pressures from society and internal issues from the organization asking why this occurred. When these pressures lessen, the organization develops a false sense of security that they have improved all they need to. They consequently become less alert to the problems that may become serious disasters, because they need to focus on the other priorities the organization is pushing for.

It was Polidoro and his team analyzing 146 pharmaceutical firms between the years of 1997 and 2004 that confirmed this forgetting phenomenon. They found that a serious drug error would push for a company to have a safety focus, and away from innovation. Over time however, the drug company would focus more on innovation and “forget” the safety scare. This only results in more errors, and the cycle continues.

Managers need to take it upon themselves to continually promote safety. Safety will only become a priority if it is made one. But beyond the failures that prevent tragedies, businesses also need to remember that just because they have survived one sort of failure does not mean they are inoculated against and immune from ever making the same mistake again. Just the opposite, any combination of arrogance and renewed naivete that grows over time could leave an organization even more vulnerable. It is natural for a business’s priorities to change over time, but common sense must remain in any case. The time to break the cycle of learning and forgetting is now.

You can read the original article here: https://hbr.org/2016/02/why-organizations-forget-what-they-learn-from-failures

About Danielle Koehler

Profile photo of Danielle Koehler
Danielle is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. She has degrees in English and human resource management from Shippensburg University.

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One comment

  1. Profile photo of John Friscia

    Robin F. Goldsmith (http://www.gopromanagement.com/) commented:

    I’ve found that organizations seldom improve from “lessons learned” for two reasons: (1) They learn the wrong lessons, usually ones that reflect their existing beliefs rather than what actually happened which often is due to their beliefs being mistaken; and (2) they don’t learn the lessons because they want to keep doing what they’ve been doing and expect better results-Einstein’s definition of insanity-rather than stop blaming others and face up to their own role in causing their problems.

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