Embrace the Benefits of Safe Failure

by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE

Any formal learning solution that lacks effective ongoing performance support leaves in its aftermath random acts of failure. This failure generally goes undetected by the organization unless its consequences are visible.

Even then, the distance between training and these subsequent failure points is often great enough to allow plausible denial of any culpability on the part of the learning solution. A key reason why we don’t see this failure is that the “grading” traditions of most school systems have oriented learners in their workstreams to do everything they can to avoid failure. When we throw them over the wall of our formal learning events into the real world of job performance, they tend to work hard to compensate for the limitations of those inadequate learning solutions. When they fail, they usually fail quietly.

Learning from Mistakes

From our earliest experience in formal education, we have been oriented to get things right and avoid making mistakes. Certainly, those of us who design and develop learning solutions should pursue effective performance as the primary indicator of success.

Yet, there’s a profound lesson to learn from former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems John T. Chambers. When he interviewed potential leaders for his company, he rightly asked first about results and walked through what they had done right. But his next question was, “Can you tell me about your failures?” Chambers looked for candidness about the mistakes they’d made, but then wanted to know, “What would you do differently this time?”

Chambers understood that we’re a product of the challenges we face in life, because how we handle those challenges probably has more to do with what we accomplish than our successes.

Thomas Edison credited failure coupled with determination as the pathway to his success: “Genius? Nothing! Sticking to it is the genius! I’ve failed my way to success.” (1)

Now, no learning professional wants to take a chance on failure when the consequences are significant to catastrophic. This is where an approach called “critical impact of failure analysis” can help sort out tasks where failure can be a safe learning experience. Think about times when you have failed—where that failure didn’t harm anyone or anything. It might have been uncomfortable, but you learned from it, right?

Safe Failure

Learning through “safe” failure is most certainly a contributor to personal growth; therefore, our learning methodology ought to include identifying skills that people can safely learn while working, with the help of a Digital Coach, so that if failure happens, they learn from it and recover in the workflow. Here is an example of how instructionally powerful safe failure can be:

Recently, I was at a family home in southern Utah with my grandson. I asked him to load and turn on the dishwasher. Here is a 30-second video of his life changing learning experience:

Watch this short video!

Although Joseph had been taught by his mom and dad never to do what he did, he still made the mistake. After this safe failure experience, he will never make that mistake again. Through safe failure, he learned in one of the most instructionally powerful ways possible.

Again, no learning professional wants to take a chance on failure when the consequences are significant to catastrophic. But in our experience, on average, half of the skills taught in corporate courses can be learned safely in the flow of work, while working, without the need for employees to stop the work they have been hired to do. If an employee fails to complete a task successfully, that failure can be a safe and instructionally impactful learning experience. All that is needed is a Digital Coach to provide access to the support required to quickly recover.

Spend a few minutes studying the following rating scale:

Figure 1: Critical Impact of Failure Scale 

Consider the implications of identifying skills that score in the 1 to 3 range in the scale above. For these skills, an effectively designed Digital Coach provides a safety net that allows complete transformation of the classroom. How? By delivering 2-click, 10-second access to just what's needed to enable learning in the workflow, you can take these lesser-rated skills out of the classroom. This allows greater instructional focus on the remaining higher-rated skills.

Without this, most courses cram in too much for the allotted time. To cover it all, proper instructional methodology is often sidelined, which forces instructors into presenter mode; yet the critical impact ratings for some of that content call for significant investment of methodology.

Learning in the Context of Work

Critical impact of failure analysis has proven to be the means for safely removing an average of 50% of content from the learning queue and putting it into the workflow to be learned at the moment of Apply. This is actually the optimal environment for learning content and skills, provided the consequences of failure aren't significant to catastrophic. The real world, not the classroom, provides legitimate context and pressing need.

The closer a learner is to the place and moment of Apply, the more open and ready that learner is to learn. Consider your own learning mindset while in the workflow compared to when you step away from it to learn in the fabricated environment of a classroom or an eLearning course. At which of those moments are you most motivated to learn and ready to engage mentally, emotionally, and physically?

In closing, 1) experience confirms that we are most attuned to learning when we are in the context of our work, and 2) research shows that our work is the environment in which learning is most naturally optimized. Here's the good news: we can confidently push the learning of "safe failure" skills into the workflow, to be exclusively learned there with the help of a Digital Coach. If performers make mistakes, they learn from them in a very powerful way. Pushing "safe failure" skills into the workflow also allows us to give greater instructional attention to skills where the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic. By doing this, we responsibly mitigate potential failure points rather than leaving failure up to chance—something we should never do.

(1) https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/3870-thomas-a-edison/about-genius 

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