Loving and Learning from Failure. Great idea, but how does it work?


“Accept that failure will happen and learn the lessons”.

That could be a classic from the dictionary of  “easy to say, hard to do” inspirational quotes. You know the ones, they get posted all over Facebook with backgrounds of epic landscapes or golden sunsets. I fully agree with the sentiment, but how does this work in a world dominated by; performance targets, measurement frameworks, corporate governance, internal audit and external scrutiny?

Following recent posts about failure here is a summary what I’ve learned and some practical advice on learning from failure. I’ve tried to cover some of the concepts which have helped me understand how to approach failure, and steps for learning in a structured way. In my experience, having a structure or process, is often the best way of convincing ‘those charged with governance’ that embracing failure isn’t just reckless risk taking.

Concepts and Context. The most important thing I’ve learned about failure is that context is extremely important. Circumstances really make a difference.

In a very structured, predictable, clearly explained and carefully monitored environment; when someone decides to ignore the rules, or do something different, failure is generally seen as a bad thing.

In highly unpredictable (complex) situations where there are no well-defined rules, a great deal of uncertainty, novel solutions are often required. Trying something new and learning from failed attempts is good. Likewise heroic efforts that fail in the face of overwhelming odds are often viewed positively.

Here are a few examples of concepts used to describe failure as being very context dependant:

So, how does this work in practice?  Concepts are helpful in understanding, but some practical advice goes a long way in turning theory into action. Here are some of the things I’ve picked up which I think help.

The Mistake Bank by John Caddell.  One of the best things you can do to accept failure is to make a bit of a ‘song and dance’ about it. In The Mistake Bank, “How to succeed by forgiving your mistakes and embracing your failures” John provides some advice on doing exactly that. One of the recommendations is to create a ‘Mistake Bank’ where the details of failures are recorded for everyone to see. This isn’t a library of ‘name and shame’, but a genuine, positive learning resource.

In a climate where lots of organisations are rushing to build ‘good practice libraries’ this approach seems bit counter intuitive. I think this is inspired advice. In my experience there will be more genuine learning from honest descriptions of failure than ‘gold plated’ best practice case studies.  A ‘Mistake Bank’ is something any Team, Department or Organisation could develop with relatively few resources (and a massive shift in thinking).

Fast Intelligent Failure versus Slow Stupid Failure. Jack Matson started developing this idea in the 1980’s. Some of his work involved getting his College Students to work on projects that were actually designed to fail. This, Students Learn to Succeed in ‘Failure 101’ article from the Chicago Tribune gives a good outline of how ‘designing to fail’ generated more innovative solutions.

Trojan Mice. Safe to Fail Pilots, Dave Snowden. I have mentioned this before. The basic idea is that, in complex situations there will be no ‘right answer’. You have to look for suitable answers through a process of experimentation. This will involve a series of ‘safe to fail’ pilot experiments that are run in parallel. The point about them being ‘safe to fail’ is important and Dave suggests that some pilots should actually be designed to fail.

Another important aspect is monitoring what is happening and ‘amplify’ the positive pilots whilst unsuccessful pilots are ‘dampened’. In this sort of structured environment it’s possible to accept failure and learn from it. It can also give comfort to those concerned about ‘reckless’ risk taking.

Professor Amy Edmondson. For my final bit of practical advice I’d suggest looking at this Havard Business Review video. Three bits of practical advice from Professor Edmondson on how Leaders can create and environment of learning from failure:

  1. Explain the Context. Let workers know if the context is straightforward or complex, and how failure will be understood.
  2. Embrace the Messenger. If someone points out failure, welcome what they have to say (no matter how difficult).
  3. Take Action. Take steps to learn from the failure.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. Failure is inevitable, but you do have choices about how you respond to it.
  2. Context is very important. Failure in a highly complex situation is different to failure in a highly controlled predictable environment.
  3. Whatever happens, make sure you accept that failure has happened, and learn all that you can.

Picture Source: A Golden Sunset with some motivational words about learning from failure. It’s one of mine, sorry,……… I’ll get my coat.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

10 Responses

  1. To me this is about the critical importance of experiential learning and respecting what is experienced. Those whose senses are assaulted by failures in what they are there to do are exposed enough for this to happen. Those who remove themselves from experience, buffering their sentience from impact, do not have that sense of reality and regular rawness and soon forget what they are there to do so their learning goes off on a dreadfully wrong track. The Colchester General Hospital cancer stats issue all over the Press right now is a painful illustration. So yes, complaints are gold dust, but never forget where the mother lode is. Mary

  2. A classic epiphany – that lucid moment, when the fog clears and you look up with a beaming smile and shake your head at the sky, in a kind of, why didn’t you say you old bugger, it’s obvious really.

    I’ve seen that happen with several people whose job it is to deal with failure! This particular epiphaniy says; failure IS the normal state. Life is a continual succession of failures. Mostly small, variations from the expectations of life that are easily adapted too and overcome: where’s my socks? Occassionaly a big fat stinker lands nearby and we mostly adapt to cope with those too, after a while.

    It’s only in our constructed, ordered, hierarchical, organisations that perfection, predictability and stability is desirable. All the things that got the boss to be the boss must be treasured otherwise, why’s he the boss? So anything that doesn’t align with this week’s vision of perfect, gets punished or labelled incompetence or heresy!

    For me Fast Intelligent Failure is the real lark. Did you know they no longer design Nuclear Power Stations to be perfect leviathons, they design them so that deviations and failure are normal. Normal to the point that systems are designed with the assumption that something will fail and when it inevitably does, it’s bloody obvious to spot when it’s small and easy to fix!

    This has been a great series of blogs on failure and for me, I’ve taken away this: “it’s ‘perfect’ that’s weird and dangerous with its pseudo-religious fanatics and it’s failure that’s normal”

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