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Blameworthy or Praiseworthy?



Admittedly, some mistakes are more blameworthy than others. As a manager, how do you make it safe for people to report and admit to mistakes?

Harvard management professor Amy Edmondson delineates a “spectrum of reasons for failure” in “Strategies for Learning from Failure” (Harvard Business Review, April 2011), as summarized here:

  1. Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.

  2. Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.

  3. Lack of Ability: An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.

  4. Process Inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to a prescribed, but faulty or incomplete, process.

  5. Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.

  6. Process Complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.

  7. Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.

  8. Hypothesis Testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed actually fails.

  9. Exploratory Testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to undesired results.

Notice how this spectrum progresses from mistakes that are blameworthy to those that could be considered praiseworthy. 

How many of the failures in your business are truly blameworthy? Compare this to how many are treated as blameworthy, and you’ll have a better understanding of why so many failures go unreported.


You cannot learn from your mistakes when the emphasis is on blaming. You cannot learn to become more resilient when your energy is tied up in assigning or avoiding blame.

Perhaps Procter & Gamble’s A. G. Lafley said it best in his Harvard Business Review interview: “I think I learned more from my failures than from my successes in all my years as a CEO. I think of my failures as a gift. Unless you view them that way, you won’t learn from failure, you won’t get better—and the company won’t get better.”


What about you? Do you learn more from failure or success? I'd love to hear from you. Please, leave a comment.


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