Failure and learning

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Donald Clark has a useful post on the role of failure in learning.

He contrasts the airline industry, which scrutinises and learns from failure to create safety, with HR convention:

We wallow in the world of gifted programmes, summative assessment for selection, lectures, essays, talent management…. The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, Learning Styles, Piaget, NLP,Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.

Many training programmes I’ve seen aim to create efficiency by avoiding failure, but relying on best practice and teaching from a position of certainty. Sadly, this almost inevitably leads to placing faith in models and instruments that turn out to be at best half-truths and as worst fads and cults.

We create five-steps and ten-rules to create a kind of dull safety, that takes the visceral energy that accompanies real learning. I think there’s a different kind of safety which embraces risk and failure, instead of effectively stigmatising it.

When Viv and I are training facilitators, a lot of what we do is to create lots of opportunities to practice, try and fail safely and learn by direct experience. Yeah, we have a book about our work, but in our training we often literally tear it up, to put it in its place.

The process we currently call Action Storming (it needs a better name) embodies several of the principles Donald articulates – failure recognition, focus on tiny steps, lots of repetition to tease out what works and what doesn’t. It builds in ways of having “catastrophic failure” in a safe way – that means setting up realistic simulations of difficult situations in which it’s possible to try things out that may not work. This way we get to explore what works without doubts being left as shadows in the darkness.


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