Credit card giant Capital One set up an internal “Failure University” when it first opened up in the early 1990s to help staff learn from mistakes.
Chris Newkirk, boss of the company’s international businesses, told BI: “If you’re truly trying to innovate, you’re going to make mistakes. As a company, you can’t create a culture where those mistakes get covered up.
“What other companies do to their detriment is sweep the mistakes under the carpet and ask the people who made them to leave. What we do is we say, let’s actually learn from those mistakes, let’s expose them, so we can all learn from that.”
While it was called “Failure University” in the early days, it has now evolved into “Credit College” — an internal university course that has “a fairly full curriculum, which is multi-year, to teach our teams on the lending side of the business,” Newkirk says.
The curriculum is “based on all the mistakes and learnings we’ve had over 25 years of having been in consumer lending,” Newkirk says, adding: “You’ve got to celebrate to a certain extent those mistakes and learn from them. I’ve certainly made lending mistakes myself and I’ve taught internal courses on some of my own learnings. That culture is incredibly important and hard to build.”
Newkirk credits “Failure University” and the culture it breeds with helping to turn Capital One from a plucky credit card startup in the early 1990s to a Goliath with a $35 billion market cap today. He advocates similar sessions to learn from mistakes at all startups, “otherwise people locally in their teams end up just learning for themselves and re-making the same mistakes.”
Amazon and Microsoft veteran Andy Reeves recently joined Capital One to head up the company’s software engineering in the UK and Newkirk says: “You asked me about Andy Reeves — look I knew we had a great culture fit in my discussions with Andy when I said tell me how you build great engineering teams at scale and he said one of the things you need to be able to do is really share what’s working and what’s not working in a really open way.”