Tolerated failure implants learning better than success.

A quote from Dave Snowden, but first I want to talk about the Husky.

For a while the Husky has been attending hydrotherapy sessions (all part of her rehabilitation after knee ligament replacement surgery). The Husky quite enjoys the hydrotherapy sessions, so do I, but for different reasons. One of us because of getting a nice bath and bit of a bouffant afterwards and the other one for cognitive stimulation. You can work out for yourself which benefit applies to who. We’ll probably continue with the hydrotherapy sessions after the treatment course is finished. We enjoy it that much.

Map reading training exercises. Yesterday the Hydrotherapist was telling us a story about when they had been a junior recruit in the miliary, and were doing map reading training. It went along the lines of:

  • The troop were on the Yorkshire Moors, with an Instructor.
  • They knew the end point they were heading for.
  • They had a map a compass and some basic instruction in map reading and navigation.
  • They were all required to take turns as Troop Leader and Map Reader.
  • At one point they had a choice of paths. A junction with both paths heading in the general direction of the end point, but one a bit easier than the other.
  • The Troop Leader chose the less hazardous path for the troop.
  • After a while it became clear that the troop were gradually gaining height.
  • This didn’t feel right as the end point was down in the Valley.
  • Shortly afterwards the Instructor called a halt and asked for a position check with the Map Reader.
  • At this point it became obvious the troop were very much off course.
  • What was more concerning was the ground ahead, some steep crags that would have prevented a safe descent down into the valley.
  • It was agreed with the Instructor that the best course of action was to return to the junction and take what had looked like the more hazardous path.
  • The troop did this, and soon passed the hazardous sections and made it safely to the end of the exercise.
  • Later that day with the Instructor the troop reflected upon what had happened and what had been learned.
  • The Instructor shared with the troop that the failure point in the exercise was deliberate, and 4 out of 5 troops made the wrong choice.
  • But that was OK, because the lessons they learnt from getting it wrong were far more valuable than what could be taught in any classroom exercise.
  • The troops that failed also learned better than those who had been successful (but that’s a different challenge)
  • This happened about 40 years ago, yet it was a vivid and important memory for the Hydrotherapist.

What is Tolerated Failure? Coming back to that quote from Dave Snowden, I first heard him say it about 15 years ago, and it’s in this 2008 article Rendering Knowledge, about Dave’s 7 Principles of Knowledge Management – it’s a good one that I keep coming back to. I’ve even tried to draw it in Knowledge Management is like a Boomerang (apologies).

The big point for me is that I don’t think that most organisations really get the point about learning from failure, let alone the idea of tolerated failure. They might say they do, but the practice is less common. Its worth having a read of this; Dealing with the architecture of fear by Chris Corrigan. The point that Chris makes is that fear (of losing your job) is a bigger motivator than the possibility of learning something interesting (or useful) from failure. However ‘tolerated’ the corporate machine says failure will be. I’ve seen enough in my working life to believe this is broadly true (but happy to have a chat if anyone has a different view).

So, here are some things I’m thinking about that might give Tolerated Failure a chance of surviving in the wild. I’m thinking about; Training, Planning and Learning.

  1. Do Training Differently. A lot of training I’ve experienced has been along the lines of someone trudging through a slide deck – mostly talking to at me. Occasionally I’ve done things that have been an approximation to real life and what happens in the wild. Things like scenario or simulation exercises where you can try, fail and learn in a genuinely safe space. You might have picked up on my enthusiasm for the scenario / simulation exercise approach in previous posts like this one on the value of Space Walk Simulations. The other thing to note is that learning from failure is a key part of the ‘approximating’ stage of an apprenticeship (done properly).
    • My suggestion. Make it the default in all training to do practical things that allow for tolerable failures. Just like the Military have done for years with map reading training.
  2. Do Project Planning Differently. I’m mildly obsessed with this one. I’ve a view that lots of activities are planned to deliver a very narrow pre-determined end result. There are no ‘real’ options, and plenty of ‘decoys’ in business case options appraisals. The result is guaranteed success with no room for failure, let alone tolerated failure. The notion of prototypes and minimum viable products (MVPs) only really exists at the margins (or Tech Start-ups). Here’s something I wrote on Minimum Viable Transformation (big change in other words), where I think the need for multiple safe to fail experiments and tolerated failure is more needed than anywhere. Please don’t get me started on Trojan Mice.
    • My suggestion. Make it mandatory for every business case options appraisal to detail all the failures that happened as part of developing the favoured options. A proper detailed list of what went wrong and what was learnt. Guess what, I’ve written the questions to ask here in; How to spot the difference between a Trojan Horse and Trojan Mice.
  3. Do Learning Differently. At the risk of flogging a dead Trojan Horse, all I want to say is do the learning as you go along and don’t wait for the Project Post Mortem at the end. To be honest, it’s all a bit too late if your learning from failure is restricted to end of project reviews.
    • My Suggestion. Concentrate on the other two things I’ve mentioned, and push project learning back into real time. People do it already. It’s called things like quality control or continuous improvement.

Feel the fear and… There’s a lot of behaviour in the world of work that is driven by fear. The article by Chris Corrigan highlights this. I’m not naïve enough to think that me or anyone else talking about tolerated failure being better at implanting learning than success is going to change much. For lots of people there’s too much at risk. However, there are organisations that have been doing it effectively for years. It’s got to be worth thinking about what they do and having a go.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Tolerated failure is an important part of what we do to learn as we grow up. However, within the world of work it is less common and failure (in whatever disguise) is something to be avoided.
  2. Training activities that deliberately design in, failure ‘opportunities’, can help to develop the recognition and acceptance of tolerated failure.
  3. Likewise business case options appraisals. Options appraisals should include details of the prototypes or tests that were tried and failed, and what was learned. This should give the end product a chance of surviving in the wild.

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:

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