Purpose: This explorative, inductive study seeks to contribute both to the growing body of research exploring mistakes and failures in organizational settings and to sensemaking literature.
Design/methodology/approach: The empirical backdrop of this study is project-based, new product development (NPD) team members working in high-tech organizations based in the state of California, United States. Drawing from the lived experiences of thirty participants through semi-guided interviews, this qualitative study employs the Gioia methodology to organize and present empirical data.
Findings/value: By highlighting how project-based workers make sense of on-the-job mistakes and failures, this study intends to provide an analysis from the workers’ perspective, which has been seldom looked at. Utilizing sensemaking as a theoretical framework to focus on this population, the findings are organized into three chapters according to when the mistakes or failures were uncovered during product development: (1) early phases, (2) near-launch, and (3) post-launch. In each chapter, three aggregated dimensions that emerged from the second-order themes are presented: (1) people, (2) time, and (3) context. This study also illustrates the intertwined relationships among the themes and how temporality and emotionality play essential roles in the participants’ sensemaking of the mistake and failure experiences.
Research limitation: Although this study offers a number of contributions to sensemaking literature and may help practitioners navigate through on-the-job mistakes, it is not without limitations. The nature of the products and the contexts in which their experiences took place vary widely because the participants shared a variety of mistake and failure experiences throughout their careers. Perhaps a longitudinal study of participants working with similar types of products and context might provide further insight into how individuals make sense of mistakes and failures throughout the product development cycle.
Practical implications: Through first-hand perspectives of the workers, this study offers unique insights to specific membership, leadership, and interpersonal relationship behaviors that foster or hinder sensemaking of mistakes or failures and affect moving the product and project forward. Furthermore, this study examines the effectiveness of project debriefing, knowledge management, and the widely accepted expectation of ‘learning from mistakes and failures.’ These attempts at rebounding from mistakes and failures might offer a set of reasons why lessons-learned may not be shared among the team members.
Keywords: mistakes and failures, sensemaking, new product development (NPD), learning, project-based work