• David Griffiths

Knowledge Management Insights: Managing Failure


Whether designing a Lessons Learned programm or dealing with unmet sponsor expectations, Knowledge Managers have to excel at managing failure.


Before reading on, try working through a response to the following three questions on failure:

  • What do you feel about failure?

  • What do you think about failure?

  • Why do you fail?

Managing Knowledge Management failure

Most Knowledge Management leaders and managers like to say that they embrace failure as an opportunity to learn because that's what their bosses, books and trainers tell them that they need to do, and few people set out to create a negative image of themselves. Apparently, to not embrace failure is wrong because it is a sign that you do not possess a growth mindset.


Your reality is a lot more nuanced, where, to be better at failure, you need to understand who you are and ask yourself how your past is influencing your present. It is the same with Knowledge Management, where little has changed in the last 30 years and, as the Deloitte slide above demonstrates, Knowledge Managers are missing the oportunity to manage and learn from failure.

How do you feel about failure?

I recently coached an executive, Tom, who described failure as being put on the naughty step. Failure feels bad. As with Tom, it floods the mind with memories of negative experiences: time-out, naughty steps, being grounded.

Your first forays into the world brought teaching and learning based on positive and negative feedback. Praise and scorn created boundaries for our paths of exploration. You might have been encouraged to explore, to climb the bookshelf to see what happens if you try to reach mum's favourite vase. More likely is that you formed your life's map on imposed boundaries created by the positive and negative reinforcement of others.  Today, through your beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent (your BASKET), you accept and reject the echos of your first forays into your world. They are part of who you are, and your attraction or rejection of those early boundaries are influencing the way you approach relationships, through to the processes, structures and systems you create to control your world today.


Question: considering that Deloitte is reporting that 82% of organisations need to do a better job of tying knowledge to action, what are your founding Knowledge Management beliefs and do they need to be quesitoned?

What do you think about failure?


Failure can be a good thing, and so many people, I'm one of them, talk about the opportunities brought about by failure. Some talk about the importance of embracing a growth mindset and attach negativity to the notion of a fixed mindset. Regressing to our early experiences of the world, it's natural that people will seek positive feedback, so why would anyone want to adopt a fixed mindset with all its negativity? Simple, fear.

Failure means that there was a gap between intended and actual outcomes. For those interested in growth, it is an opportunity to learn. However, where pressure, for example, fear of losing your job, creates anxiety and fear, triggering a freeze-flight-fight response, you might choose to rationalise the chance to escape through blame. 


Here at K3, we say that the BASKET case names the blame: pressure, coupled with a lack of confidence brought about by Beliefs, Attitudes, Skills, Knowledge, Experiences and Talent, and opportunity (e.g. a lack of workplace care and accountability) to relieve the stress of failure by naming the blame.

However, it is never as simple as a binary choice between the dark and the light. Your reaction to failure will fall somewhere on a continuum between two extremes. On one end you focus on you and what you did to cause failure (internal locus of control), on the other end you shield yourself and look exclusively to others for blame (external locus of control). Your reaction to failure will vary with pressure, opportunity and your BASKET.


Question: as a Knowledge Manager, what would you do if you were not afraid?

Why do you fail or why did you do that?


Don't make the mistake of asking that question, please. Asking 'why?' could send people back to memories of the naughty step; they then might start to feel anxious, triggering a freeze-fight-flight response. Instead, try something more positive. For example, from what you are saying it would seem that everything around you was chaotic; what do you remember feeling at the time? One of the biggest obstacles to understanding failure is cause-and-effect, which brings about two learning distractions:

  • First, people tend to make the mistake of exploring failure with the benefit of hindsight; see our blog on prophets and leaders for more information

  • Second, people tend not to know that failure occurs in one of three primary environments, and, to learn effectively, you need to know which one you are in.

Simple environment

Example: Which side of the road should you drive on in the UK? Answer: There is one right answer, which is widely known, and you can predict outcomes from non-compliance. Nature of the environment: Best practice (e.g. Standard Operating Procedures) Learning in failure example: Training and sanctions for repeated failure Complicated environment Example: Which is the quickest route when driving from New York to Seattle? Answer: There are better or worse decisions you can take. With enough money and time, you will get there regardless, but an expert can help accelerate learning toward better choices. Again, you can predict outcomes, but with less certainty than in a simple environment, but a subject matter expert can reduce that uncertainty. Nature of the environment: Better & worse practice (e.g. process improvement) Learning in failure example: root cause analysis, as events in the environment show weaknesses in existing processes, you can engage a subject matter expert to develop process improvements. Complex environment 

Example: what impact will COVID-19 have on Knowledge management programmes over the next ten years? Answer: The outcomes are emergent, where the answer is not knowable except in hindsight; there is an unknown number of variables with unknown levels of connectivity between variables. Nature of the environment: Emergent practice (e.g. safe-to-fail micro experiments), where positive feedback from your actions allows you to proceed and negative feedback brings you to retreat quickly. Learning in failure: engage with a range of subject matter experts to reveal as much of the environment as possible and ask yourself, what could I have done differently in the circumstances if I did not know what I know now?

David's note on environments

These environments are nested, where two people sharing the same space at the same time can be experiencing two different contexts. I was working with a US executive team on managing failure shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River. The Chief Exec asked whether the pilots were experiencing a simple, highly complicated or complex environment. The answer, probably all of them at once.

For example, the captain was facing an emergent situation, where the outcome was not known; he needed to find a way to land the plane safely. The issue of getting the aircraft on the ground was guaranteed, but it was unclear whether he could achieve that outcome safely. As the environment emerged, the captain faced a knowable outcome - he was going to put the aircraft down on the river - but there wasn't a standardised procedure, which left him as the subject matter expert to make better or worse (complicated) decisions. In that same moment, the co-pilot was arguably experiencing a simple situation where he was running through standardised checklists and procedures.

If you want to learn more about high-impact KM Insights, drop me an email and start a conversation (david@k3cubed.com)

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