Leadership & Ethics
Learning from our Mistakes: Tolerating Failure versus Allowing FailureBy Darren Murch OAM December 16, 2019
Contemporary conversations involving the Australian Army’s Training Transformation involve the idea to allow failure as a means to learn. On his reflection on command, Nathan Pierpoint observed that being open to failure does not come easily. However, he explains how failure generates active conversations and engenders solutions that encourage people to accept responsibility. The Profession of Arms expects improvement during all phases of training to reduce the chance of catastrophic lessons, which are not always learnt from, during operations. Richard Thapthimthong highlights this with his observations of Exercise Hamel in which he describes his Brigade Commander’s encouragement to “… innovate and experiment – even at the cost of failure”. This allows the headquarter staff to “… [feel] empowered to push the boundaries and accept tactical risk close to failure”. This article will not contest the value of learning through failure; rather, it will challenge the language of ‘allowing’ failure as a means to encourage this format of learning. Error and failure are inevitable and should be anticipated; therefore, tolerance and perceptive corrections is the leadership approach that should preside when learning.
Tolerate versus Allow
The word choice of tolerate or allow is not just a case of wordsmithing but is an example of a learning climate that contributes to a culture that understands learning. To be an effective and enduring learning culture, an organisation deliberately:
- assesses the current environment
- designs interventions to bring about change
- monitors the outcomes
- capitalises on wins
- reviews for further change
Allowing failure. The above approach foresees that failure will occur and it is for leaders to be watchful and collect information that will assist with corrected iterations. Organisations based on a hierarchical structure will always tend to demand the best; expecting unfaltering efforts from each echelon and individual within the chain of command. This is reinforced by a military’s nature of rewarding the best people with promotion and applying standards and discipline that are not tolerant of error. These statements support the expectations of a military where allowing failure goes against the history and design of all military forces. As the Australian Army investigates its Training Transformation, and looks across the world’s best practices that reflect technologies and the need for a learning evolution, establishing the right context for allowing failure to learn is crucial.
In a training and learning environment, allowing anything to happen should be planned so outcomes can be optimised. Sure, there is some value in a free reign environment that generates unforeseen learning situations to improving decision making and building resilience. Nevertheless, without an apprised and sophisticated understanding of how humans react to stressors and stimuli, allowing failure can have negative effects on how people learn, what they retain and how they perform during the next serial. Madden (2017) discusses Dr Mary Lamia's findings about the effects of assured failure. As a US Army observer-trainer during eighteen warfighter exercises, Madden observed continual negative psychological effects on officers and soldiers who lost motivation to succeed when assured failure overrode the training outcome.
Leaders and training designers have a greater responsibility than allowing failure. They must design the training paradigms that anticipate learning experiences and allow people to move through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow & Lewis, 1987). Well-structured learning serials facilitate positive outcomes that equip learners to self-actualise and build an experience-bank of numerous and variable perspectives. This opposes a shallow view of allowing failure to describe how a person learns from their mistakes to create a self-correcting path to reset themselves and not replicate that error. Depending on the learner, this can be the case but should not be an unguided pathway towards improved performance that relies on a mantra of “failure experienced - learning achieved.”
Showing tolerance. Error is the vice of humans and can occur when expected or not, so training designers should have a reasonable expectation to plan that failure will occur. This does not abrogate the involvement of training designers and leaders to simply observe failure for what they perceive as a vehicle to learn. The knowledge, experience and judgement of the people responsible to plan and assess training are the instruments that must be tuned to produce results based on:
- what is needed at that time in training
- measures of performance that have been planned
- understanding what the building blocks of proficiency are
- what the end result should be
Tolerating failure is not a flippant shoulder shrug when things are done incorrectly or poorly but it acknowledges that failure will occur. Unlike allowing failure, tolerance sets the tone where leaders anticipate supervisory follow-up to integrate ways to understand, guide, retrain, restart or introduce greater complexity as part of the structured training methodology. This instils a deeper purpose that reinforces an enduring, positive learning culture.
Epstein (2019) discusses the difference between learning fast and slow through the mechanisms of using procedures or making connections. He provides research that illustrates short-term wins when teachers use a procedural approach but notes degradation of lessons occurs quickly. Learning with a procedural style involves repetitive practice of newly learned information or skills. In contrast, making connections allows long term gains, which involves questions and activities that connect learners to the broader concept or context. A popular practice of this is Socratic Questioning that allows a person to recognise and discover solutions within a safe environment of “… questions, stories, anecdotes and additional experiences [for] learners … to expend [their] effort to explain their failures” (Burleson & Picard, 2004). It is important to understand these types of learning approaches so training designers and leaders can support their decisions that determine when failure could occur. This cues leaders to formulate various supportive learning mechanisms to move the learner through. This is an example of tolerance as a learner moves towards failure.
Furthermore, Burleson and Picard explain their central point of maximum learning will not occur if:
- the learner is not stretched
- the fear of failure is not removed
- motivation does not outweigh failure
Their research examines an affective (emotional bias) approach where the teacher/coach/ leader understands the needs and learning style of the student. Based on this, tolerance of failure removes the higher negative experience felt from failure, which disproportionately outweighs the positive effect experienced from success. This reiterates the detriment to a learning culture when allowing failure without emphasising the supporting mechanisms to motivate and improve. Failure is not the learning tool. Instead, Burleson and Picard explain that learning occurs when people are taught to:
- foster affective self-awareness
- deal with failure, frustration, and other forms of negative affect
- identify and benefit from incremental success.
This framework of awareness, exposure to difficulty and encouragement is supported by Harari (2018) who posits that a teacher needs to be less interested is providing a learner information. Through existing and emerging information technology, a learner has a level of accessibility to information that is beyond what a teacher can provide. Instead, Harari says teachers need to provide the means that allow learners to identify what information is important and how those elements can be brought together for optimised performance. This mindset exercises tolerance that allows people to explore what they should learn or examine in greater detail what is expected of them. Recently, the Centre for Australian Army Leadership used this approach to emphasise self-discovery and equipped students to be understanding and tolerant of others. These types of skills and knowledge need nurturing and when used to complement training have a direct effect on motivating learners, especially those who react adversely to failure. Being left to fail is counter intuitive to an inclusive learning environment if members of the learning audience give up at the point of failure.
Kapur and Rummel (2012) introduce the learning theories of Productive Success and Productive Failure. Firstly, Productive Success strives for short-term improvement and long-term learning sustainment. Sweller (2010) explains how this supports a person throughout learning and secures performance as the person improves. Over time, the cognitive load increases to a higher level of learning. Allowing failure does not feature in this method. On the other hand, other research shows that immediate or delayed learning is not a result of the Productive Success theory. Subsequently, Kapur and Rummel offer Productive Failure as a viewpoint where short-term success is low but long-term is maximised. They found by allowing trial and error in the early learning stages students achieved lower results than the Productive Success students, but the Productive Failure students achieved greater results than their counterparts over the long term. Their findings highlighted how freedom to explore numerous avenues to understand concepts consolidated a deeper level of knowledge and assisted with retention and recall. The same situation is found with the marshmallow challenge (Wujec, 2010) where curious minds that are allowed to protype, trial and collaborate end up building stronger, taller structures. Consequently, Productive Failure supports the notion of allowing failure as a better option to learn. However, Burleson and Picard’s research clearly shows environmental conditions that stretch, support and motivate produce superior results. This nurtured learning approach nests with a climate of understanding, anticipation and a tolerance of failure backed up with considered and tailored remediation.
This purpose of this essay was to temper the contemporary conversations about the value of allowing failure to create a learning outcome. There is no denying this may occur but leaders and training designers should understand this should not be the motivator for learning. Rather, researched, planned, and executed training serials are the environments where training occurs. Leaders who understand failure will occur, tolerate errors and follow up with feedback and refreshed iterations contribute to optimised learning that is enduring. Thapthimthong’s (2018) account of his Brigade Commander highlights how a learning pathway takes people “close to failure” and not into failure. This situation has a framework of control, observation, supervision, anticipation and reaction. Time to train is limited, so learning must occur at all opportunities whether through successfully executed mission sets or times of individual or collective failure. Fostering a learning culture that establishes an informed, mature and perceptive climate is key to investing in a Training Transformation.
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Epstein, D. (2019). Range. How generalists triumph in a specialised world. Riverhead Books. London: United Kingdom.
Harari, Y.N. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century. Spiegel & Grau.
Kapur, M. & Rummel, N. (2012). Productive failure in learning from generation and invention activities. Instructional Science, 40(4), 645-650.
Madden, J.J. (2017). Is failure the right training strategy? Military review online exclusive, August 2017, 1-5.
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Piermont, N. (2019). Reflections on Battalion Command. Retrieved from https://cove.army.gov.au/article/reflections-battalion-command
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Thapthimthong, R. (2018). Ex Hamel 18 writing competition, highly commended: learning from Hamel 18 – 10 observations from formation C2. Retrieved from https://cove.army.gov.au/article/ex-hamel-18-writing-competition-highly-commended-learning-hamel-18-10-observations-formation
Wujec, T. (2010). Build a tower, build a team. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M