For many, the act of failing or committing a major mistake is enough to send them spiraling down into a pity party. But there is a lot to be gained from any given failure. The key is not to ask “what if,” but rather, to treat the event as a learning experience.

To truly benefit from failure, however, you need a process in place to learn from mistakes. Otherwise, you (or those you work with) are doomed to repeat them. Or, these failures may simply be symptoms of a much bigger problem, one that can easily grow or worsen if not addressed.

Recently, Google described its internal process for documenting and learning from mistakes, and it’s a brilliant method you and your organization can learn from.

The process is ever so aptly named: the postmortem.

So, what lessons can we learn from the Google postmortem?

Here are three.

1. Identify the most important problems.

“A postmortem is the process our team undertakes to reflect on the learnings from our most significant undesirable events,” writes the Google team [italics theirs]. “Incidents happen, but not all require a postmortem. That’s why our first step in our process is making sure we define when we need one, by setting up our criteria.”

For Google, such incidents include disruptions to service, like when the “Shakespeare Search” was down for 66 minutes during a period of very high interest in Shakespeare due to the discovery of a new sonnet. (The impact of that error led to an estimated 1.21 billion queries lost.) According to Google, other postmortem scenarios include data integrity impacts, slow customer resolutions, or failed error detections.

Takeaway: Ask yourself, what do I define as a major problem? You may not always know until you see it, and that’s OK. Use those problems to help you identify future failures that are similar.

2. Create a record.

“Our next step is to work together to create a written record for what happened, why, its impact, how the issue was mitigated or resolved, and what we’ll do to prevent the incident from recurring,” writes the Google team.

Additionally, Google suggests asking specific questions like:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • Where did we get lucky?
  • What can we do differently next time?

Takeaway: Involve your entire team in determining the answers to these questions. Google recommends scheduling a 30- to 60-minute meeting with the team to explore the incident. Most likely, additional reflection and documentation will be necessary.

Take your time to learn now and save time in the future.

3. Promote growth. Not blame.

“Removing blame from a postmortem can enable team members to feel greater psychological safety to escalate issues without fear,” write the authors. By assuring team members that they will not be punished for the mistakes they made, you build “psychological safety,” or trust. (More on how to do this here.)

The key is to encourage your people not to play “the blame game.” Rather, you want them to focus on improvement and learning. Doing so, point out the Google authors, can help you to “reposition failure as an opportunity for growth and development rather than as a setback.”

Takeaway: To get team members to buy into the philosophy of continuous improvement, team leads must admit their own mistakes and failures and be willing to document these. By setting the example, they will help promote a culture of true growth.

Google has even provided a useful, downloadable template for conducting your own postmortem exercise, which they encourage you to edit to suit your personal needs.

Remember, everyone makes mistakes. The question is, not “what if,” but instead, what did we learn?

The more you and your team contribute to the answer, the more successful you will be in the long run.

Originally published at