Failure is just a first attempt in learning. If you've never failed, you've never lived. “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” - Robert F. Kennedy “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” - Ken Robinson “Giving up is the only sure way to fail.” - Gena Showalter.
There is not shortage of inspirational quotes about failure. There is also no shortage of videos, books, blog posts or magazine articles about it either. Yet, failure still has a punch in the stomach feel to it. We still avoid failure. We minimise failure. We use failsafes so that we are less likely to fail. We help, guide, rescue others so that they do not have to deal with failure. Even as we spout inspirational quotes about failure, we try our best to avoid it.
Recently, I had to venture out of my comfort zone to experience some rather public failure. As a 28 year old, I had to learn to drive a manual car from scratch. Being a fairly competent learner of new things in many other areas, I started with my growth mindset switch engaged, as usual. I even got myself a new set of learner plates for the car, proudly sporting the fact that I was learning something new. My attitude paid off relatively well whilst driving around in my local shopping mall car park. But then, the real world. Stalling whilst trying to pull away at the traffic lights that resulted in many loud honks. Or, not stalling, taking my time to pull away calmly, and still being honked at for taking too long. Having to ask for help from others because I can't take myself for a driving lesson or learn how to drive from Khan Academy (yet). Scratching my new car on my own mailbox in the first week of driving it by myself. All of these events make you feel a bit embarrassed (because I still can't get it right), defensive (because I thought I did the whole sequence of handbrake-clutch-petrol right), argumentative (it's not my fault), angry (I'm just learning here, stop honking at me you stupid people, at least I'm trying) and just a general sense of frustration.
Something as simple (and yes, despite the above I am calling this simple) as learning to drive can be so uncomfortable that we sometimes avoid it (I don't feel like a driving lesson now...). We feel angry and upset about it (especially when I scratched the car). If this is how one might feel about driving, how earth can we take risks in schools when learning to drive is this emotional?! How can we innovate if the second we step out of the car park, we let the cars honking from behind put us off? We often feel safe test driving new ideas and innovations in the safety of a car park, but we get flustered, defensive, aggressive and a range of other feelings when we are honked at outside the car park.
But... Would you have told me to quit learning to drive manual because people were honking at me whilst I was learning? Yet we often seem to quit when cars honk in education.
So what do we do about those honking cars?
I am about mid way through a great book called Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (PS: I am considering buying this book for every leader I know for Christmas, i.e. I think you should read it). One of the ideas from this book that has really struck a chord with me is the idea of safe-to-fail experiments, (as opposed to a failsafe). Where adding in failsafes to a process, we make back up plans and safety nets so that the experiment can not fail us, safe-to-fails do not. Failsafes stop the failure from happening, and in the process, limits the learning. In contrast, a safe-to-fail experiment has no failsafe. In other words, if the experiment fails, we don't 'fix' it, we don't have a back up plan, we literally try something that might fail, and let it fail. It means we learn what happens when it fails. Is that a terrifying idea or what?! Not as terrifying as you might think...
A safe-to-fail experiment is instead, an experiment where if it fails, it is OK, because the purpose of the experiment is to learn. The purpose is not for the experiment to succeed, the purpose is to learn. Again, a scary thought... Shouldn't we be aiming to succeed? Yes! But sometimes, learning is more important. For example, lets say that I would like there to be more diverse perspectives in a particular meeting. A failsafe experiment might see me invite outsiders who I know represent diverse perspectives. Of course, the experiment has a failsafe, I don't want it to go wrong, so I am going to remind them of the events, drop hints, maybe even coach the 'diverse perspectives' a little. I need buy in from some senior managers, it's about being accountable after all. I have also organised some 'back up' people incase my diverse opinions can't make the date. In contrast, safe-to-fail might have me ask questions in the meeting such as 'what other perspectives have we not yet considered?' and 'who has a contrasting opinion about this?'. Then, I would simply sit back and listen to what happens. My little experiment might have worked, it might not have. It doesn't matter, because either way, I will learn more about how the group responds to different perspectives.
It is small, it is safe, and it is just as likely to go wrong as it is likely to go right. But, I will definitely learn from the results. And from there, I might upscale my experiment, because I learnt that the group were very receptive to alternate perspectives. Or, I might learn that the group struggled to generate alternate perspectives so my next experiment might be targeted there. Either way, I know more and so, can make a better decision about where to next, what to try next, what experiment next.
Some people talk about failing forward, I like to think about this as experimenting forward. But more importantly, it might be a means by which in education, a system in which we desperately need and want to see change but we are honked at by parents, politicians, communities who fear failure, we might experiment safely. Maybe, by using safe-to-fail experiments, we might learn to drive outside the car park without being honked at too loudly. And maybe this way, we might learn about the ideas and people that underpin our faculties, our schools and their communities, the relationships that shape and guide them, the tails that wag the dogs. We all know that you can't really solve a problem until you understand it. So, until we really learn about and understand our systems, our initiatives, our ideas, our failsafes will keep resulting in us finding mediocre solutions because we have not really learnt about the problems enough. Our innovations and experiments will be limited in reach, they will be bandaids, not arcs.
PS: I can drive a manual now... outside the car park. Join me?