Embracing Failure


Today's topic is from a blog called Living the Dream. They made a collection of links to different articles talking about failure. If you want to look into the subject more I encourage you to click through on some of the articles.

Let's first talk about riding a bike. How did you learn to ride a bike, what was the process?
Can someone 'teach' you how to ride a bike?

What are we talking about when we say 'failure'? Let's try to get a definition together first.
What are we afraid of, when we're afraid of failure? What's involved in being afraid of failure?
Is there a difference between 'failure' and 'fucking up'?
Can failing tests be helpful to overall learning?
Do you often repeat mistakes? Do you repeat them even when you understood what went wrong the first time?

How is creativity related to failure?
What is meant by creativity?
Can creativity be taught? Can it be facilitated?

Let's look at this graphic, A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure, from Harvard Business Review. It ranges from blameworthy to praiseworthy. I want to talk about them one by one, and see what everyone's reactions are.
• What did you notice about this list?
• How many of these listed feel 'bad'? Okay? Good?
• How are these kinds of mistakes treated in your workplace?

I read somewhere that when a relationship fails, it's actually really good for both people if they can sit down together and talk about what went wrong. Both people will be more likely to go on to have more successful relationships after.
Do you have any story that supports/refutes this idea?

Do you have any stories where failure has taught you something useful?

Traditional vs. accidental learning
Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure.

Failure leads to better retention of information
People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, they showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning. It’s an idea that has obvious applications for education, but could be useful for anyone who is trying to learn new material of any kind.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes. – John Dewey

Failure can lead to long-term success
While success is surely sweeter than failure, it seems failure is a far better teacher, and organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run.

Also, sometimes it's not really a failure
What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake. Bob Dylan, in other words, was right: There’s no success quite like failure.

Lock-step academic teaching not just a Taiwan thing
The growing ‘culture of one right answer’ is eroding the analytical and critical thinking abilities of American students who are being fed a diet of rote memorization and bubble sheets.

For years, many educators have championed “errorless learning,” advising teachers (and students) to create study conditions that do not permit errors. The idea embedded in this approach is that if students make errors, they will learn the errors and be prevented (or slowed) in learning the correct information. But research ... reveals that this worry is misplaced. In fact, they found, learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that students make errors.

Video: Learn from failure. An interview with Amy Edmonsdson

Notes from the video content below. There's also an excellent article, Strategies for Learning from Failure.

We understand logically that it's important to learn from the failures that do occur.
At the same time, we are afraid that creating an atmosphere where mistakes can be made means that there won't be high standards.
That's a false dichotomy.
If we lived in a world where we knew in advance how to do everything. Those that didn't do it, should certainly be held accountable.
Most work is full of uncertainty, novelty, and a need for creativity and new ideas. Of course some portion of that new work will go wrong. It's a given that we want to learn from it, but not that we will.

What gets in the way of learning from failure?
We don't have or practice the skills/activities for doing it: Detecting failure, analyzing failure, creating failure.
Creating it?
When you experiment, and when there's uncertainty you have to experiment, some of them will produce failures.
Creating failure means producing intelligent failure (through the process of experimentation)

How do you get people to speak up about things they see as going wrong?
Frame the work accurately. Explain the meaning and nature of the work we do. If it's high volume production of identical products, then being able to speak up when the tiniest error happens, then it's gotta be safe to speak about that.
if you're a science laboratory trying new things, if 70% will go wrong, then people have to be able to make more failures, more quickly, to stay ahead of the competition.

Embrace messengers, not shoot them. It never feels good when someone says something's wrong, and don't take it out on them. It's tough, but you must celebrate their wilingness to come forward.

Set up processes by which failures are learned from. multidisciplinary teams, and protocols to follow. People feel that it's a distraction from the real work, but the truth is, this is the real work.

How to make work more failure tolerant even if you're not management? By raising concerns and questions. Do it with enthusiasm, and the intent to make things better, it'll be infectious, and your peers will do it too. If you have people reporting to you, it'll make a great impact on their behaviour and assumptions.