How should managers analyze successes and failures?

What’s the big idea?

Ideas fail because their of concept, presentation or execution—but success requires all three.  Some failures happen at once, others in slow motion.  Some are small, some are large.  Members shared stories of large and small failures, but analysis always led to breakthroughs.

Member contributors

  • Bob DeVita
  • Susan Dineen
  • Kevin Hickman
  • Steve Johannsen
  • Bryon Johnson
  • Tony Lawson
  • Bill Mitchell
  • Kristi Thering
  • Carolyn Tretina
  • Derrick Van Mell

Best practice question:  How should managers analyze successes and failures?

3 discussion questions

  1. When did analyzing a success or failure lead to a breakthrough?
  2. What tool or technique quickly digs up root causes?
  3. What do you do if someone might have made a bad mistake?

Critical questions

  • How can we turn this failure into a success?
  • How might today’s success fail tomorrow?
  • What were our assumptions?
  • Were we solving the right problem?
  • Can the idea be reframed?

Analysis team

  • Give extra attention to something new
  • Set up a Problem-Solving Group (PSG) that can be convened any time
  • Make the PSG cross-functional
  • Get people outside the project to help review it

Process and policies

  • Accept that one person’s big mistake is really a signal of system failure
  • Avoid fear by making post-mortems or “After Action Reports” routine
  • Review monthly the best and worst projects
  • In healthcare, physicians do “mortality and morbidity” reviews
  • Avoid blame, which creates fear, which cuts off ideas
  • Reduce fear to reduce risk aversion because thoughtful risks are opportunities
  • Show that everyone is responsible for success and failure because everything’s connected
  • Analyze successes, too
  • Review systems of controls (checks and balances) at least annually


  • Use Gross Profit and time use as indicators
  • Make an extra effort to get lessons of success and failures from retiring staff
  • Follow up to all complaints and failures
  • Be aware of the dangers of the “unknown unknowns”

Analytical tools