Friday 19 January 2018

Is Learning from Failure the worst way to learn?

Is learning from failure the best way to learn, or the worst?

Classic Learning
Classic Learning by Alan Levine on Flickr
I was driven to reflect on this when I read the following quote from Clay Shirkey;

"Learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That's not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: "Don't go in that swamp. There are alligators in there."
Clay thinks that learning from (your own bad) experience is the worst possible way to learn, but perhaps  things are more complex. Here are a few assertions.

  • If you fail, then it is a good thing to learn from it. Nobody could argue with that!
  • It is a very good plan to learn from the failure of others in order to avoid failures of your own. This is Clay's point; that learning only from your own failures is bad if, instead, you can learn from others. Let them fail, so you can proceed further than they did. 
  • If you are trying something new, then plan for safe failure. If there is nobody else to learn from, then you may need to plan a fail-safe learning approach. Run some early stage prototypes or trials where failure will not hurt you, your project, or anyone else, and use these as learning opportunities. Do not wait for the big failures before you start learning.
  • Learn from success as well. Learn from the people who have avoided all the alligators, not just from the people that got bitten. And if you succeed, then analyse why you succeeded and make sure you can repeat the success.
  • Learning should come first, failure or success second. That is perhaps the worst thing about learning from experience - the experience has to come first. In learning from experience "the exam comes before the lesson." Better to learn before experience, as well as during and after.  

Learning from failure has an important place in KM, but don't rely on making all the failures yourself. 


Anonymous said...

I agree it's better to learn from the failures of others, but sometimes you need to experience and internalize things for yourself to really learn them and hearing from others isn't enough.
I've often seen people failing to learn from clearly documented and shared failures, because the person feels that the problem might have been the original person or the team, not the approach and that they couldn't possibly do as badly themselves.

Nick Milton said...

I would question whether you ever "need" to experience failure for yourself.

Did the people you talk about - who refused to learn from others - actually "need" to ignore the warnings and fail again?

Or are you describing a sort of cultural "not invented here" - a sort of arrogance that "I am too smart to make the same mistake". If so, then they did not need to fail, they needed to change their attitude, and this can be done through means other than failure, especially where failure can be costly.

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