“Education is wisdom wrung from failure”

October 24, 2011

I’ve been making the point for some years now that we learn more from failure that we do from success, or more importantly from tolerated failure. Its at the heart of apprentice models of learning. The apprentice imperfectly imitates the master and makes many mistakes, they also talk with other apprentices imperfectly imitating other masters and are taught by and assist the journeymen/women who act as an interpretive layer to those with mastery. Its the process of failure which creates the learning. Now the evolutionary reason for this is simple, avoidance of failure is generally a more successful strategy than imitation of success. Negatively this can result in an unwillingness to take risks, but that can also be positive.

It follows from this that focusing on best practice systems (in other than the highly stable simple domain of Cynefin) is a mistake and it would be better to allow sharing of fragmented stories of failure (something that SenseMaker® is designed for just to declare the commercial interest). Some more evidence of this was reported in Wired by Jonah Lehrer, author of the delightful Proust Was a Neuroscientist but with an added twist. He starts with Bohr’s famous definition of an expert as a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field, makes the wonderful statement that forms the title of this post and then reports on some very interesting experiments by Jason Moser at Michigan State.

You need to read the post itself, but in summary the original evidence, based on EEG evidence is that we need to monitor both the initial response to failure, but also the degree to which a secondary brain response pays attention to that error (aspects of my See-Attend-Act model)> I’d argue that the essence of a formalised and ritualised apprenticeship is to teach you to pay attention to error rather than dismiss it, and its no coincidence that the professions have never abandoned the apprentice model by the way.

In a sense the training that an apprentice model provides means that you learn the advantage of being able to assimilate failure. Now Lehrer reports additional research which demonstrates that more attention is paid by those with an open mind set to those with a closed mindset. Now OK you could argue that this is self-evidence, but even for the self-evident its good to have some evidence to back it up. In a sense an open mind set creates a state of awareness agility that enables learning.

But Lehrer is not finished here, he goes on to mind us of experiments that show that if children are praised for effort they choose more difficult tasks, while if they are praised for intelligence they choose easier ones and also chose to look at the results of people who had done less well than themselves, bolstering self-esteem.

Now this has major implications and backs up some experience I had while working with IBM. Reward mechanisms (more on that tomorrow) tend to bolster self-esteem and the pattern of success will therefore engender over time an inability to properly pay attention to failure so that when the collapse comes it is catastrophic in nature. The related IBM experience was instructive. In a wide lessons learnt programme on outsourcing sales we clearly identified that successful teams tended to fail second time round, whereas unsuccessful teams who showed evidence of learning succeeded. From that we developed a simple three step process:

  • Did the team succeed? If so break them up next time round, spread the learning, but force them to deal with new people
  • If the team failed, have they learnt from the failure or are they just listing excuses? If the latter fire them …
  • … if the former keep them together and give them a harder task next time round

I regret to say that even though we proved the approach it was deemed too risky by Executives, which was ironic to say the least.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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