I’m back to pursuing learning from failure after listening to an episode of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, featuring Professor Dame Wendy Hall. In response to a question (27mins) on why the UK doesn’t have the equivalent of a Google or Twitter Professor Hall responded; “we don’t kill things fast enough…. most things will fail…. “. This was a thought-provoking answer and is worth listening to. In fact, listen to the whole programme if you are at all interested in computing and the discipline of Web Science, which she co-founded at Southampton University.
From this explanation of failure in the complex world of technology innovation I ran straight into one of my Dalek friends….. a practitioner from the world of Heath and Safety regulation.
Whilst we were chatting about my recent blog posts on failure they did actually say “In my line of work failure is not an option…. things are either right or wrong. There is no place for failing and learning. We have to be right” (best spoken through one of those voice changer toys….. EXTERMINATE!).
Well they are both right. In some cases ‘most things will fail’ and we need to ‘kill things quickly’, learn the lessons and move on. In other cases failure isn’t an option, things have to be right. The response to failure is very specific to the situation. I’ve been trying to find a good explanation for why this is the case, and here are two examples; one by John Caddell who wrote The Mistake Bank and The Cynefin Framework by Professor Dave Snowden.
John Caddell, The Mistake Bank.
John Caddell has been very generous and shared material with me on how to learn more effectively from failure. One of the key points I took from this was the need to understand your circumstances. How you relate to failure in a highly structured, predictable situation will be different to a highly unstructured unpredictable environment. This diagram from John’s Mistake Bank blog has been adapted from the work of Professor Amy Edmondson. Professor Edmondson wrote, Strategies Learning from Failure, which she discusses in this Havard Business Review video.
The key point is, for highly predictable, less complex areas, failures should be treated as defects and avoided. My Dalek friend is right here. A 3 ton load in a 2 ton limit should not be allowed. In unpredictable and highly complex areas, failure needs to be looked upon as something you can learn from. The trick here is to develop an approach that allows rapid learning through fast intelligent failure. I find the Cynefin Framework helpful in understanding this.
The Cynefin Framework and learning from failure.
The Cynefin framework is also the subject of a Harvard Business Review article so has a good pedigree.
From the perspective of learning from failure it is worth focusing on the four domains. In the simple domain there is best practice, one way of doing things. Here failure, deviation from what is ‘best’, is a problem. Rather than accept failure and learn, its best to avoid the failure in the first place, as there is little to improve.
Jumping straight to the complex domain. There is no known answer, practices are emerging from a complex unknown situation. This very much describes the situation in the modern world and the example given by Professor Wendy Hall. In technology innovation there are lots of ‘attempts’ and failures need to be ‘killed off’ quickly. The crucial point is to learn from the mistakes and move on. In the words of the Cynefin Framework, ‘probe’ for new solutions. More on the Cynefin Framework can be found in this video on the Cognitive Edge website.
Daleks, the enforcers of Best Practice. I have limited experience of real Daleks but I do think they would be enthusiastic ‘best practice’ enforcers. Insisting on the one and only ‘best’ method of doing things. This would be regardless of the level of uncertainty or complexity of the situation. Failure is not an option……..EXTERMINATE!
By contrast, John Cadell, and three Professors all say that there are circumstances where failure in inevitable and should be encouraged so that you can learn, make changes and move forward. The world of emerging practice, not best practice or even good practice.
Failure is an option, it just depends upon the circumstances.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Learning from failure is a highly valuable activity that should be encouraged.
- Understanding the situation and what approach to apply to failure is important.
- Daleks and Doctors (Professors) have their rightful places, but mixing them might not get a happy ending (YES! A Doctor Who link at last)
Picture source: BBC Doctor Who Publicity. http://www.bbcshop.com/doctor-who/doctor-who-talking-dalek-bronze-dalek/invt/04352a