The battle of failure: Learning vs knowing

Failure was a big topic of discussion a few years ago, which worked out pretty well for me as I was working for an audit body at the time.

Break Bart Simpson throwing a cake with “At least you tried” written on it in the bin

The connection between learning and doing

Sometimes there are models that just help things click into place for you, and when it came to failure, Prof. Amy C. Edmondson's Spectrum of Reasons for Failure really helped to crystallise things for me. The graphic of the spectrum itself within this Harvard Business Review article on strategies for learning from failure is pretty low res, but its simplicity is super helpful to understand when failure is blameworthy, and when it’s simply as a result of wider system issues (spoiler: unless someone is setting out to mess things up on purpose, a lot of thought is needed around how we work with people who are involved in any failure).

The Squiggly Careers podcast with Prof. Edmondson is well worth a listen. There are elements in there that weren't talked about a couple of years ago. The key takeaway for me was around who has the privilege of being able to fail. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but it never occurred to me that my perspective around healthy attitudes to failure had been shaped by my privilege as a straight white man. It's a lot safer to fail if you're given the space and emotional support to do so.

The other aspect that I found particularly interesting was the discussion around choosing learning over knowing. As I've undertaken my work over the last couple of years there have been occasions where I have become frustrated that people have not been able to see learning from a perspective where training and information dissemination isn't the default answer. The truth is that we all see the world through the prism of our own experiences and biases, and I have been fortunate enough to be rewarded for my work in facilitating networks and creating different kind of learning spaces. The behaviours and activities that I have been rewarded for are usually different to those displayed in other roles. This reflection has prompted me to be more generous (and much less judgey) in seeing things from other people's perspectives.

It takes time and perseverance for us all to un-learn what we previously thought good looks like – that we have to know everything about everything, and that failure is shameful (something that I've touched on in a post on trauma-informed regulation). It takes lots of hard work to build inclusive learning cultures. But if we're going to create public services that are fit for the twenty first century, it's something that we are going to need to do.

Follow me on