Thursday, 8 April 2010

Learning to fail, or failing to learn?

Originally uploaded by smemon87
I was reading this blog post the other day, about the role of failure in learning. In the post, the author says the following.

Every individual has three orientations in encounters with new areas of discovery — avoiding, performing and learning.

Most organizations are performance driven. The employees who perform the best are the ones who are rewarded. Those who try to improve on performance and fail are reprimanded. However, it is only in trying something new that they can improve performance, where new discoveries are made.

The implication here, is that failure and learning are linked, and that failure should not be treated as a negative thing, if it leads to learning. I know there is a strong body of thought that says you need to fail, in order to learn. "Experience is the best teacher" and so on. "Take risks, fail, learn". "Trial and error" is often used as a synonym for learning.

I have been thinking long and hard about this, and I dont think that I agree. I think you can learn, and still minimise failure. I think you can learn, and AVOID failure.

I know that the writer of the blog was contrasting "playing safe" with risk taking, and mentioning failure in the context of trying somethign new, but there are three points I would like to make here.

1. "Performing" should not be seen as in contrast to, or opposed to, learning. Performing and learning go hand in hand (see the video on Performing on our Knowledge Management video page - its in the middle of the bottom row). Performance should never be static - no manager should accept performance which is not constantly improving. Static performance is poor performance. John Browne's challenge to BP, which was such a strong driver of KM, was "every time we do something, we should do it better than last time". For him, static performance was failure.

2. Risk taking, trying new things, and failing are no guarantee of learning. I have seen people take risks, and create their own new solutions, as an alternative to learning from others. I have heard one guy say "I know that factory over there has done this before, but rather than learn from them, I am going to create my own solution. That's what I do - I am an engineer, and my favourite tool is the blank sheet of paper". Informed and strategic risk taking is fine. Taking stupid risks is just plain stupid. Failure in service of a stretch goal may also be fine, provided there are contingency plans and fallbacks, and also provided you haven't wiped out the company budget or killed someone along the way. Failure because you are too dumb or too lazy or too proud to learn from others before trying something new, is not fine.

3. Risk taking plus learning avoids failure. Part of the thinking behind the quoted post (that if you don't fail, you won't learn) is based on the assumption that all learning comes from doing. If you are "learning while doing", you need to feel your way, and mistakes and failures are unavoidable. But what if you "learn before doing"? What if you get us much knowledge as you can before you start? What if you learn from others (another plug for Peer Assist here), learn from your network and community, learn through practice, learn through scenario planning and role play? That way you take informed risks, and you minimise the chance of failure.

Let's sever this implied link between learning and failing. Let's embrace informed, knowledgeable risk taking as a way to avoid failure.

Let's re-unite learning and performing.

Lets learn to succeed, and learn to improve.

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