Failure - A Necessary Step for Learning

Our Design Partner Greg Hart talks to Community Now! Magazine, Volume 3 Issue 8 (April 2021)

Failure is defined as (but not limited to be defined as) according to the Oxford Dictionary :

• lack of success in doing or achieving something

• a person or thing that is not successful

• an act of not doing something, especially something that you are expected to do

• the state of not working correctly or as expected; an occasion when this happens

Greg Hart, Design Partner at Thin Air Labs joins Krista Malden, Publisher of Community Now! Magazine to explore failure.

K: How do you define failure?

G: Two versions of the definition:

1. There is a nuance here between what is known and what is not. For instance, the standard definition of failure applies to what is known. For example, if someone has a lot of experience climbing steps in their house and then falls on those steps, it is considered a failure. If someone is supposed to know the answer to a question and they can’t remember or say it incorrectly, they have failed. If someone sets out to become the gold medalist in their sport and falls short, we say ’they failed at reaching their objective.’

Or even in language. Grammar has rules and we can fail to execute against them even when we know the correct application. For instance, writing the question, ‘Are their any people who believe this?’ is technically wrong and I’ve failed to use the right version of ’there.’ But can you see why I might have? The question I’m asking is about people and THEIR beliefs.

This can create confusion that challenges the complex assembly of responses in our brains.

2. If we understand that the world is a complex system with unknowable relationships, we know failure is completely unavoidable. If we know this about the world, it can also help us to avoid blame and instead focus on learning and understanding. We can truly work together to see the features of every context that lead to good outcomes.

In the unknown scenario which is where we find most exploration and innovation, my definition is: A necessary step for learning.

Learning is an adaptive response and making mistakes is a key step in that repeating process.

K: When we look at the greatest achievements in life, why do we only talk about the successes? (And not the failures that occurred to make the great achievement happen)

Denzel Washington’s speech ‘Fall Forward’ gives a great example. He states: “Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t either - be-cause number 1,001 was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.”

G: ‘Fall forward’ is a very instructive use of language. Walking or running is a continuous cycle of falling forward and catching ourselves. When we are learning to walk we are pulled forward by the desire to get somewhere and to get something that we want. Parents routinely position themselves to encourage their aspiring toddlers to get to them. We learn to walk by first falling forward and then working out the catching part. We don’t get to have the catching part all worked out in advance. And yet, we do generally celebrate the result.

I think some of this is tied to the fact that only the result of the learning matters - the impact or change that happens. In a social species who have always depended on each other to survive (this starts well before humans on the primate section of the evolutionary tree), outcomes matter. While we might encourage learning, if it doesn’t lead to outcomes, it doesn’t matter.

This is where culture becomes so important. While successful outcomes are vital, they are lagging indicator; we only know about them after they happen. The routine experimentation, failure, and learning is a leading indicator for successful outcomes and cultures that reward and celebrate that behaviour will have more success as long as that doesn’t become an end in itself where outcomes don’t matter.

"I define innovation as a change in the way something is (innovation of things) or the way something is done (innovation of ways) that results in the creation of new value." --- Greg Hart, Design Partner

K: How do you define innovation?

G: I define innovation as a change in the way something is (innovation of things) or the way something is done (innovation of ways) that results in the creation of new value. An innovation of WAYS is generally more powerful because it can produce reliable value over time, potentially spawning many new things.

K: Without failure... what would we be missing in society?

G: Learning, change, significant improvement, most of the most compelling games, books, plays, visual art, and movies. Everything is built around this tension. Without the chance of not generating a successful outcome, nothing would be interesting. Complexity is what makes failure so probable. So many ungovernable relationships with so many degrees of freedom. Lord Kelvin and others, on the eve of the 20th century, suggested that physics was all figured out except for some little details. He saw that as something uninteresting - without the tension of unknown things that require experiments. Of course, we quickly discovered that he was completely wrong since relativity and quantum mechanics was hiding around the corner to unleash more complexity than could be imagined.

So much of life is built off of experiments which lead to experience... without failing we can’t figure out what we are good at or where we belong ... yet failure is looked at as a bad thing.

K: Why do you think society has such a bad outlook on failure (and where did it come from)?

G: Humans are social creatures and depend on each other to survive. That isn’t always obvious from the headlines as we can easily forget the most essential parts of our nature and fool ourselves into thinking we can do everything ourselves. Even that underlines the core part of our social nature. We are trying to signal to others that we are so competent that we don’t need anyone else. At the same time we are also signalling that we are so competent, everyone else needs us.

There is a fear, an insecurity, associated with not being needed that can still lead to us losing our employment or the support of our fellow humans in some way. This is something that people are essentially afraid of and to ‘fail’ is to signal low competence and therefore harm our relationships with other people and the degree to which they choose to care about my well-being. Knowing this about people leads us to how we can accommodate for that.

K: Going back to innovation: without it we have no new... but to get it we have to teach people to be curious and take risks and to believe in themselves.

G: It is worth knowing, going back to what is known and what is not, that if we work in a ‘known’ context where we are exploiting some previous (perhaps long ago) innovation, failure becomes not part of learning but a threat to reliable outcomes. If we work in this world for long enough, it becomes difficult to embrace learning and failure even when we switch to a new context that requires it.

Again, culture becomes important. If the new context rewards and celebrates experiments, most people will conform to that standard of behaviour because it is safe to do so. This is where the concept of the psychological safety comes into play. It is a collection of behaviour that forms a keystone principle of cultures that seek innovation.

K: How do we teach people to be curious, to take risks and to believe enough in themselves and their vision .....And to accept that the risk could lead to failure?

G: It isn’t so much about teaching. After all, that is a form of telling and doesn’t translate to experience very well. In fact, telling steals learning from people and we want to create the conditions where they will learn. There is a heroic subtext (often not even the subtext but blazing through the headline) that it is all about the entrepreneur believing in themselves and their vision so much that they will endure all the slings, arrows, starvations, failed relationships, and other outrageous fortunes to bring it to life or … not. In saying this, I am not disputing the reality that this is actually true about entrepreneurship. I am saying that it ought not to be. And this brings us back to the conditions we create.

"If we make it too hard for people to contemplate failing, they will either not start or avoid it to the extent that it generates a catastrophic failure at a later stage. " --- Greg Hart, Design Partner

Since innovation requires mistakes and failures and since humans are far from all-knowing or infallible, we need to create conditions where we can explore the unknown without continuous, precarious, existential threat hovering over us like the sword of Damocles. Some people will disagree here, believing that the threat of the sword motivates learning and successful outcomes. It doesn’t have to be existential. With the consequences stacked that high, mostly only the heroes are going to succeed when we need lots of people to succeed and be willing to take chances, to come back from significant financial failure. Without those or the protection of a limited liability (it’s right in the name) corporation, the entrepreneur’s journey we be even more epically heroic. Sure, go for it, but if it doesn’t work, you’ve forfeited your future entirely.

If we make it too hard for people to contemplate failing, they will either not start or avoid it to the extent that it generates a catastrophic failure at a later stage. We want to control the exposure in the learning so the inevitable mistakes are small and the learning fast and agile. It is where the philosophy of the agile approach to software development comes from - create the conditions for learning by making a continuous series of tiny bets that we can learn from. It is one of the reasons that, when building software, we might say to try and execute the smallest user stories possible so that very little is lost and the most is learned in the highly likely event that it doesn’t exactly work the way we expect it to.

K: In the business world disruption is also talked about ... is disruption a good or bad thing?

G: Disruption is a fascinating word that, like many words before it, has lapsed into buzzword status. Fundamentally we are talking about a technological change so significant that it displaces the way things are done including entire sets of products, markets, and systems. The most obvious example is the digital disruption that we see expanding and morphing even to include things like the NFTs. What is interesting about disruption is that it can be led, it can be capitalized upon, or we can be victimized by it. In particular disruptions can trigger a transformation of an entire system or, they can be captured by the status quo to increase the hold of the old trajectory.

An example of this is using digital tools to increase economic extraction and further focus the accumulation of wealth in fewer hands but faster than ever. Disruptive technology, while dramatically shifting value chains in a set of markets, may not disrupt larger currents in business and society but instead be captured by it.

This is a focusing reality at Thin Air Labs. There are some transformations relating to the social foundations and planetary boundaries that must take place in the world and fast. We want to see disruptive technologies accelerate those transformations and not be captured by existing currents that are leading towards the future we must avoid. In fact, we see an opportunity to curate and guide these disruptions, accelerating the demise of undesirable trajectories.