Learn from Failure

Entrepreneurs have a secret ingredient. They know how to fail forward. They learn from prototypes and iterate to make their products better. Even large companies like Apple will tell you that they can’t predict the outcomes of their controlled experiments. If a product fails in the prototyping stage, they go back to the design process and build a better product. The idea of learning from failure is a core principle of the most successful companies in the world.

If we could adopt the attitude of failing forward in education, we could change the lives of many students. In education circles, I hear a lot about teaching students grit and perseverance by allowing them to learn from their mistakes. This sounds good on the surface but in a system that has traditionally categorized every student based on letter grades, this idea falls short of expectations. Time constraints often prevent students from having the opportunity to use formative assessment results to improve their assignments and resubmit. I was recently reminded of Ron Berger’s Critique and Feedback video. The video clip shows how work can improve when students are given feedback and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

From the day that they’re born, students are placed into categories – pretty, petite, fat, funny, smart, hyperactive. Students who are placed in one of the categories that society praises may be reluctant to move outside of the safety zone. That feeling of safety, however, can be detrimental to a student’s growth. To take a risk is to accept that you may experience failure. A college professor that I talked with recently mentioned that the students who have played it safe can be fragile. When they have a failure in college, they take it hard and don’t always have the resiliency to move forward.

Labeling students as failures is an everyday occurrence in our schools. We rank students with grades and find additional ways to predict their success or failure. When my daughter was in 6th grade, I was surprised when she came home one day with a red alphabet letter attached to her ID badge. My first reaction was that she has been tagged with a “scarlet letter.” After more questioning, I found out that all students had been tagged after taking the career interest and skills survey. She told me several stories of students who were now tagged with future careers ranging from attorneys to sanitation workers based on their current abilities. I sent her back to school with a note to have the label removed from her name badge. Good intentions to categorize and label students can be limiting.

Failure can become fate. I know too many stories of students who have not been able to overcome the F label. They drop out of high school or college. They become involved with drugs. They commit suicide. This is the real effect of labels. For those of us who survive the system and make it into successful careers, we fear failure. When something goes wrong, it’s easy to find someone else to blame. The person who accepts failure may lose status with colleagues.

So I have to ask, how can we teach students to fail forward if we’re unable to do that ourselves? Until we take a hard look at how we label students and come up with a better system, we will not be providing them with the skills for successful lives and careers. I encourage you to walk down the hallways where you work and make a list of the labels that you see. Take that list, start a conversation with colleagues and find a way to remove the barriers that we keep in place with our adherence to categorizing students based on perceived abilities. Design a prototype and fail forward to make meaningful change for our students.

In my professional experiences, I spend a lot of time with teams who are sandboxing their ideas through prototyping and iterations. The initial phase of gaining insights about an issue through research, observation and interviews allows innovation teams to brainstorm ideas and decide on ideas to prototype. Throughout the prototyping of a solution, teams gain feedback from users and transfer that knowledge into new questions that should be addressed with future prototypes. The process involves a series of events when teams are using divergent thinking and then converging back around some central ideas. This process of diverging and converging allows the team to develop innovations with scalable solutions. By looking through the lenses of desirability, feasibility, and viability, teams continue to improve on the process. Feedback from a variety of stakeholders in the organization is vital to a team’s success.

View from the top

I always tell innovation teams that they will work harder than they ever imagined. In fact, the first part of an innovation initiative which includes defining the problem, developing ideas and prototyping is the easy part. In The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, the authors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble describe what happens after you get to a point where an innovation begins to impact the existing organization. They describe the initial phases as similar to an ascent on Mount Rainier. Much time and energy is put into reaching the top and teams are often drained as they begin the descent. This is the difficult part where the terrain is rough and teams need to find a reserve of energy for the final push to complete the journey. The peak is a halfway point. Innovation cannot scale until the team has completed the journey.

The existing system may not be prepared for the speed at which an innovation may grow. There are still many unknowns around the innovation while makes it unlikely that the organization will be able to easily absorb the project into the existing structure. Diverse teams and groups of stakeholders must come together and deal with the ways in which the innovation may impact the organization. The innovation may require a lot of resources to move forward. Shared staff who work with both the innovation and the day to day operations will need to understand the implications of the innovation and  provide support. Support from outside of the organization may also be needed so that innovation teams can learn from the experiences of others.

The other side of innovation is a difficult journey which involves second order change. First order change builds on improving existing systems while second order change involves developing new knowledge and skills. Most organizations are constantly moving to be more efficient at what they do. To become more effective, however, may involve looking at something through a new lens and creating innovations that do not easily fit into the existing system. Change management is the key to seeing an innovation through from ideas to action to full implementation. Leaders and innovators must join hands for the final descent to successfully scale an innovation. Enjoy the amazing view from the top, but be prepared for the journey that lies ahead.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.