Do we Need to Try Harder to Fail?

Winter is coming. The latest Learning Insights report highlighted the ‘digital blizzard’ surrounding our learning organisations, and the speed of new technologies and ideas. Is it time to rethink our organisational approach to change? Is it time for us to try harder to fail?

Dream or Nightmare

Last year, I embarked on a very ambitious project. It was a BIG idea and it had lots things I’d never done before. While I knew it was a great idea, I was filled with doubts - would it work? 'Dream or nightmare' was my mantra. And guess what, it did fail a few times along the way. We had to rethink and rework a few times, amd while it’s still early days, we’ve also had some great success.

So why would we want to fail?

As humans, we’re pre-wired to avoid failure. Studies show we overestimate the possible negative impacts of something going wrong, so we’ll continue with what we’re doing instead of trying something better (and possibly failing at it) - even if we know what we’re doing is not the optimal solution.

However, the world is changing. What the Learning Insights report highlighted is that our L&D teams are under pressure;

  • Our learners have expectations that have sky rocketed from the tidal wave of digital influences; and they are very savvy and demanding consumers.
  • Our organisations expect more and different skills from our L&D function; visual design, marketing, media, technology, web, and content curation amongst others.
  • Our organisations want more for less, faster and of higher quality.
  • Technology is forcing us to change – whether by device, technology or tool, it’s assumed we will integrate all of this into our learning ecosystems.
  • Agile methodology is moving out of software into our organisational ways of thinking and working.

So how are many of us responding? Safely. We create a plan, develop a strategy, write papers, set budgets, we frame and constrain, and we outline risk and return. But this is taking time, it’s not meeting the needs, and it’s not delivering to anyone’s agenda. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach.

Reframing how we see failure

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
- Thomas A. Edison

If we’re going to succeed, we need to reframe how we see failure – to see it as a positive.

  • Failure tells us exactly what won’t work – and a chance for us to ask why.
  • Allowing failure takes the pressure off needing to create perfection.
  • Failure raises more interesting questions than success. E.g. do our stakeholders ever ask us, ‘But why did we succeed? What are the underlying reasons for success? What can we replicate to ensure we succeed in future?’
  • Failure is a great opportunity to listen to what our learners really want.

OK so what's next? You’re ready to embrace failure but is your organisation?

Creating a culture of failure

If we want to deliver what’s needed, we need to change the role and mind-set of L&D within our organisations.

So what does that culture look like for us in L&D?

  • Our skillsets reflect the work we do; content curation, learning experience design and consultant.
  • We rapidly respond to change – we regularly look at what’s not working and adapt our learning experience to fit in a timely way.
  • We operate in a flexible way – we have freedom to explore new ideas and trial concepts without the pressure of deadlines.
  • We eliminate, or greatly reduce, analysis phases and instead prototype extensively.
  • We focus on sales – selling our ideas to our leaders and getting them excited to champion.
  • We are bold and brave – we take a shot with a view that we might fail, but with the mind-set that failing is okay.
  • Most importantly, talk about what hasn’t worked. Our stakeholders accept failure through an understanding of the value it offers future thinking.

How to fail smartly

Are you ready to fail? What can you do to start moving your organisation to embrace failure? Here are some tips for getting your next new idea off the ground.

  • Keep your project budget small & under the radar
    That will force you to be lean with your thinking.

  • Follow your passion
    Go deep. Talk about it to anyone that will listen. Ask anyone who will listen, ‘do you think we could do that here?’ If you’re passionate, what you’re doing will never be a failure, just great personal development!

  • Find a nugget to trial
    Find a small part of the bigger idea to work with. It should be bite-size, manageable, and able to be created in two weeks. Make it as awesome as you can, then release it. Don’t spend time perfecting it.

  • Iterate, iterate, iterate
    This should be your mantra. It might not be right the first time, second or 10th time – but will be increasingly better.

  • Use a small group to shape it
    Test, feedback, test, feedback – many times over. But cap your iterations – try and do this fast, say within a week.

  • Record your journey
    Capture your successes and failures. Telling stakeholders about what didn’t work may be just as important as what did work. Collect quotes to add a voice to your idea.

Embrace the nightmare

We’re at a point of very significant change, and with that we need to consider new ways of working. Like Edison, we need to reframe how we see failure and change our own approach to what we do.

So be brave, try to do one thing differently. Start having different conversations and embrace the nightmare - it might just lead to something great!


If you're not sure how to make the most of technology to support performance in your organisation, or want to take steps into trying some new approaches, then please get in touch


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