Failing to Fail


Timothy Baird, Ed.D.

The new mantra heard in the boardroom and much of today’s leadership training is “Fail early and fail often.”  We now have conferences devoted to failure.  Leadership work groups spend dedicated time celebrating their most recent failures.  New books on failure are emerging all the time.  In our headlong rush to embrace failure, we are failing to notice one important point.  Despite our new failure philosophy, we really don’t understand what we are celebrating and we truly aren’t living this philosophy, despite the parties, plaques, and public sharing of our most recent setbacks.

This came to my attention recently, when I heard a very articulate high school junior publicly lamenting her personal difficulty with failure.  In her world (and most of ours) failure is punished and we are rewarded only when we succeed.  Failure on tests or papers leads to serious consequences for a high school student looking to establish a strong academic record for college applications.  How do we reconcile this reality with our new focus on failure philosophy?

First, I believe that we need to understand what we are talking about when we say failure.  There are many ways to fail and many forms of failure.  Some are not failures that we wish to embrace.  No one wants to use a parachute from a company whose motto is, “Fail early and fail often.”  You don’t want this to be the personal philosophy of your heart surgeon or even your car mechanic.  Your ATM better not fail.  So, we need to clearly identify the parameters of failure that make failure either a positive event or a horrific nightmare. That means we have to more clearly identify the meaning of failure.  There are random failures, research failures, and design failures that all have different causes of the failure and different purposes for potentially using the failure to move forward.

Random failures are simply mistakes that happen to all of us.  They may originate in not planning well or rushing into something.  They may be the result of changing environmental factors or just bad luck.  Whatever the cause, we all make random mistakes in our lives and work.  The results of these random mistakes can sometimes be serious.  It was the failure of a poorly designed O-ring seal that led to the Challenger space shuttle disaster resulting in 7 deaths.

These random mistakes can be informative.  If we learn from this type of failure and don’t repeat it in the future, then random failure can be a positive thing.  However, I don’t believe this is what we are truly trying to embrace when we talk about, “Failing early and failing often.”  When we are talking about failure being part of the planning process, we are really talking about a very different type of failure.  These are the failures found within the process skills of research and design.

These processes are truly not building off of failure.  I would more accurately call what happens in this work iterative successes and informed and measured risk taking.  Let’s start with research failure.  I define research in two distinct areas, information literacy and the scientific process.  Both of these processes can start with a question that leads to testing to get answers.  We need to explore answers to these questions (some of which lead to dead ends) to make progress.  This is clearly observed in the scientific process.  The story of Edison and his team perfecting the incandescent bulb is a great example of this.  This team tried over 3000 different theories before finally coming up with the forerunner to today’s modern-day lightbulb.  Were these attempts failure?  I would term this work as 3000 successful designs showing what didn’t work.  This allowed the scientists to finally find something that did work.  This is how science works and this gets closer to the idea of, “Failing early and failing often,” to get the results that one wants.

That leads us to design or design thinking where this concept is truly developed.  In design thinking, the designer has to work through a series of steps.  These include: thinking up the question or questions that they are trying to solve; understanding the parameter of the question including who the audience for their work will be and what do they want; researching the questions; attempting to test, experiment, and explore solutions to the questions: and then ultimately coming up with a final solution and sharing that solution with the audience.

Failure can occur at every step in this process.  Here is where the real meaning of, “Fail early and fail often,” comes into play.  Failure at the questioning, understanding, testing, experimenting, and exploring phases helps guide the work and allows the designer to improve on their work throughout the process.  Asking lots of questions and thinking up new crazy ideas often leads to important findings or other new ideas.  Testing the user needs and designing multiple models and prototypes of ideas leads to better ideas.  At this stage, more failure is often better.  Failure at later stages in the design process can still be helpful but the closer the designer gets to a final product, the consequences of failure become more serious and costly.  Strategic failures early make for a stronger final product.  This again is not really failure but informed and measured risk taking.  The purpose of this risk taking is to lead the designer to new information that will then be applied in the final design.  Even saying final design is not accurate.  Every new final design of a product or plan is really just the beginning of the next design challenge.

When we talk about failing early and often, we really are celebrating effective research and design principles.  These include using the scientific process to test theories.  It also includes informed and measured risk taking and testing multiple iterations of ideas.  The overarching concept is that we learn from our experiences and then apply this learning to new settings.

Let’s go back to our high school junior and see how this applies to her and many of her fellow students.  Much of our school experiences now have the look and feel of final products.  In many schools today, students are frequently denied the early stages of research and design as they try to establish their own meaning of new learning.  They have no opportunities to fail and learn from their failures.  They aren’t given options to try multiple iterations to see what works.  They are taught that learning is a one-shot game that requires a win every time to be successful.  It was a good thing that Edison’s team was not given the same guidelines.  Otherwise, I might be trying to write this in the dark.  We need to recognize that it is not just random failure that should be celebrated.  We need to focus on planned failure found in design and research strategies that impact future learning.

A great place to start this work would be in our schools. Students and teachers need to be given the same opportunities to use failure to learn and improve that we give our researchers and scientists.  Then we can begin to truly succeed at failing.











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