If you’re like me, you were a good student. You got good grades, you worked hard on homework, you studied for tests, and you experienced a high degree of academic success. Yet, all this success didn’t necessarily help you learn new skills. In fact, recent studies suggest that being a diligent student in the traditional sense may hinder learning—the kind that helps you solve real-world problems and acquire new skills.
What Is Intelligent Failure?Intelligent failure was originally coined by behavioral psychologist Sim Sitkin , in his groundbreaking work, “ Learning Through Failure - The Strategy of Small Losses.” Sitkin noticed that most organizations try to engineer failure out of their process, robbing themselves of the opportunity to identify weaknesses before small failures become big catastrophes. The keyword in this discussion is intelligent. Sitkin recommended building learning experiences that supported experimentation, allowing the learner to explore and challenge assumptions and test them out in some actionable way through a project or test. These “planned failures” must meet specific criteria:
- They arise out of a planned, controlled experience, so you can figure out the cause of the failure.
- The outcome cannot be known in advance. Think of it as an experiment.
- They are modest in scale, avoiding a major catastrophe.
- They are designed to take place in a short period of time.
- The content directly applies to the work of the individual or the organization.
A New Look at Failing on PurposeRecently, several studies have given us a fresh look at this practical concept of learning from our mistakes. Here’s a rundown of some of the most intriguing discoveries:
Failure Drives Innovation
Researcher Susan Kerrigan and her colleagues describe the relationship between creativity and failure as “deeply symbiotic.” They recognized that the creative process often results in many twists and turns, even a few dead ends, before arriving at something new and exciting. The key takeaway in their study is a call for organizations to accept more risk, which will introduce the possibility to learn from mistakes. They observe that many organizations are so risk-averse that great ideas rarely get pursued; instead, the “less creative but safer” options are explored. This approach has a chilling effect on the individual, who learns to color only “inside the lines.”
Intelligent Failure Requires Coaching
Not all failures are equally valuable as learning experiences. Researchers Jean Hartley and Laurence Knell found examples of how to classify and approach failure as a teaching moment in the coaching model of the London Metropolitan Police. They approach all failures based on their root cause, assigning a coaching approach based on the source of failure.
|Cause of Failure||Coaching Response|
|Conscious deviation from procedure||Censure or disapproval|
|Inattention||Re-educate and support|
|Lack of ability or skill||Educate and support|
|Task complexity or unpredictability||Acknowledge and tolerate|
|Instinct to innovate||Celebrate and reward|
In all cases, the officer will learn from failure. However, the learning experience (from censure to reward) is quite different, depending on the cause.
The High Price of Failing to Learn From Failure
Inspired by the failure of the US intelligence community to recognize the warning signs that led to the attacks of September 11 and the failure of NASA to identify the weaknesses that led to explosions of the Columbia and Challenger shuttles, Bazerman and Watkins identify four ways in which organizations and individuals fail to learn:
1. Scanning failures. Failure to recognize changes in the culture, economy, or environment that result in making poor or ineffective choices.
2. Integration failures. Failure to recognize how seemingly different pieces of information connect to provide a holistic view of a complicated whole.
3. Incentive failures. Failure to reward experimentation and accept a degree of risk to stimulate innovation.
4. Learning failures. Failure to draw important lessons from mistakes and incorporate them into best practices for the future.
In the case of serious failures across an organization, multiple types of failure may be in play.
What Can You Do to Introduce Your Learning Audience to Intelligent Failure?Albert Einstein said, “A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.” In the learning and development world, we face multiple disruptions that force us to find new ways to deliver training, which make us feel like there is no time or no tolerance for failure. Yet, it is through failing that we make the most strides forward.
The key is to create a safe sandbox where learners can make mistakes in a safe manner then to guide them to reflect on what they’ve learned. We often see a “sandbox” as a tool for teaching new software, but could it be applied to other skills as well? Here are a few ideas:
- Build training simulations based on multiple opportunities to fail, rather than finding the single correct path to the answer.
- Encourage small experiments in all areas of your organization.
- Identify and celebrate failures that led to new insights or new ways of doing things.
- Teach your managers to change failures into learning achievements.