Re-learning how to learn from mistakes
Watch any young child learning something new. Generally, there’s lots of false starts. Surfing is a big industry around here. On any day, there’s groups of people learning to surf – young kids, teenagers, adults. There’s no short cut to learning to surf. There’s lots of false starts. Yet every time someone misses a wave, they learn something, and next time they try something else. It’s incremental. Gradually, with lots of practice they start catching waves, start standing up, start surfing.
This sort of failure is okay. It’s how we expect to learn something new. Yet we’re sometimes expected to do something we’ve never done before at work – to innovate – and to also be sure it will work, first time. Seems like a big ask to me. And what happens? People stop trying anything remotely risky. If they can’t be absolutely sure it will be successful, they don’t do it. This can be disastrous for any sort of growth, innovation, or creativity.
Let’s look more closely at failure. What sort of failure is not okay?
Tim Kastelle describes a useful hierarchy of failure:
- System failure (the collapse of communism)
- System component failure (stock market crashes)
- Major firm failure (Enron going out of business)
- Start-up failure (pets.com going out of business)
- Product failure (New Coke tanking)
- Idea failure (Apple Navigator prototyped but never launched)
Idea failure can happen in many different ways too – prototypes, assumptions, hypotheses and guesses can fail to work as anticipated.
When people react against the idea of failure, they are usually thinking about higher levels of failure than ideas. And it is really bad when entire systems fail.
So how do we become comfortable with idea failure? How do we keep going when every time we try to catch the wave, we fail?
Part of the answer is in persistence and experimentation. When I watch people learning to surf, or when I’m out there with my own boogie board, it’s all about trying something, seeing how that works out, modifying it or trying something new, and keeping at it long enough for a breakthrough.
An aside: This brought me to wondering about the difference between persistence and perseverance. It seems perseverance is sticking to a belief or an idea, while persistence is sticking to a course of action.
A perfect example of this for me is rock balancing. I believe it’s possible, and persist with trying to make the rocks balance! And another example for me is applied improv: I believe that it’s important to the way we relate to each other in all walks of life, and I’m willing to persist with bringing the principles and practices of improvisation to life for people.
So for learning, and for innovation, we need perseverance (a belief that things can be different or improved) and persistence to try something over and over, and learn from our mistakes. I’d also add the principle of letting go. And the wisdom to know when to keep persisting with something that’s not quite working, and letting go and trying something else.
Using the principles and practices of applied improv can help us do this. I remember one of the first applied improv conferences I attended, there was a group of about 10 of us standing in a circle trying out and creating different games and warm-ups for improvising. Someone would make a suggestion, and we’d inevitable start talking about it until someone else would say “let’s just try it!”. And that’s exactly what we’d do. We’d try it and if it didn’t work so well, someone might incorporate a new idea while still playing the game. It accelerated learning, was a lot of fun and kept us all engaged.
When using improv activities with a group to explore different behaviours, some people may become impatient when the activity has been done once or twice. It’s interesting to persist with the activity. We’ve noticed that interesting things happens after a while of persistence – the group gets into a flow state, individuals start to recognise patterns in their behaviour that they were unaware of, or the whole system might completely break down. No matter what occurs there’s a great deal of leaning to be gleaned from such experiences.
Having ideas and sharing them, talking them through, thinking how they might work is all good – and at some stage the idea needs to be tested, experimented with, assessed, modified, improved. All this can happen in a short time by improvising.