The art of failing: why we should educate students about failure

Publication date: 12 March 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Failure is part of life but it isn’t addressed as much as it should be. Deniz Ucbasaran talks about failure, its concepts and the teaching methods surrounding it.Why we should educate students about failure

Most things we teach are geared towards success and succeeding. When recruiting students, we want to attract the best students; those who have succeeded. We pore over their CVs carefully to identify their academic achievement and we scrutinise their prior work experience to see what they have accomplished.

Then, when they arrive, we teach them about success – how to run a successful marketing campaign, how to become an effective leader, how to gain competitive advantage – and we do this using examples of successful companies and leaders.

This is quite understandable. After all, nobody wants to pay thousands for an MBA to learn about failures and failing, right? There are a whole host of reasons why such an attitude can be problematic.

First, if we are not careful, we may be committing a scientific sin – ‘sampling on the dependent variable’.  If we only look at the practices of successful companies or individuals and draw conclusions that it is their practices that led to success, our conclusions can be misleading. It is only when we analyse the practices of those that failed, as well as those that are successful, that we can more accurately attribute a particular practice to success. It is partly for this reason that I am an advocate of ensuring we teach our students about success as well as failure.

Second, failure and setbacks are part of life (including business life). While failing is not a new phenomenon, our ability to predict what will happen next accurately is diminishing as we operate in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world (notwithstanding developments in artificial intelligence in certain areas). With this uncertainty comes surprises (both good and bad), setbacks and failures. We therefore need to acknowledge and understand them, and learn how to deal with them in such a way that our failures might actually fuel future successes.

It is important to note, however, that not all failures are created equal. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, suggests that failures fall along a spectrum. At one extreme are blameworthy failures such as those failures that result from people deviating from rules (such as safety or regulatory requirements) or a lack of effort. Some failures may result from lack of knowledge or experience, or come about due to an overload of work. In the latter cases of failure, the blame may lie with superiors for misjudging competence and stress levels.

At the other extreme are ‘intelligent’ or praiseworthy failures which are the result of carefully crafted experiments designed to generate learning about what works and what doesn’t. Typically, these intelligent failures are low in cost but high in learning. For example, you may have an idea for a novel product. Rather than going full steam ahead, you might develop a low-cost prototype and start by getting potential customers to use it and provide feedback. You realise that they don’t want the product you had in mind but they would love it if it was available in a particular style or if it had a particular function.  Although finding out that potential customers don’t want your product in its current form might seem like a failure (i.e. it failed to meet your expectations), you haven’t invested a huge amount to find out some valuable information that now provides you with new options. These kinds of failures are part of the various processes that we do actually teach many of our students, like entrepreneurship (using principles from the lean startup movement), innovation and design thinking. But while they make intuitive sense, these ideas are often harder to put into practice, both personally and within an organisational setting.

As much as we might think we can design intelligent failures that enable us to ‘fail fast, fail cheap and move on’, many failures are not carefully planned and designed. They can come as a shock and are often hard to cope with. Therefore, although a failure represents a jolt that encourages us to reflect and ask: ‘what happened?’ learning from failure is not automatic. For starters, minimising the costs of failure can be hard. If left unchecked, many of us are prone to the bias known as ‘escalation of commitment’ where we might invest more and more in the hope of turning things around when they look like they may be failing. Also, failure can be an emotional experience – especially if we can’t minimise the costs associated with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, and blame. These feelings may be heightened in certain contexts and cultures more than others. After all, not everybody lives in the entrepreneur-friendly, failure-tolerant, Silicon Valley. These emotions associated with failure might lead to defensive strategies, such as the blaming of others or the attribution of failure to external factors beyond one’s control. Emotional responses such as these may limit the lessons learned from the failure.

It was partly for this reason that one entrepreneurship professor took issue with the way learning from failure was being presented – suggesting the process was more complex than that which was being presented. Drawing on his own experience of dealing with his father who had to close the family business, Dean Shepherd, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame University, saw how the failure of an entrepreneur’s business could be likened to the loss of a loved one in that it can generate a response similar to grief.

Feelings similar to grief might lead to numerous coping strategies, not all of which might be conducive to learning from failure. Even if many failures are not as severe as having to terminate one’s own business, there are still likely to be emotions involved. Plus, if there is no emotional reaction, there may be little motivation to analyse what went wrong, so some emotional reaction can be helpful. So, what can we do to make sure there is an appropriate emotional response? And how can we prepare the next generation of managers and leaders for dealing with failures?

One important first step is to ‘normalise’ discussions about failure. Through discussions about failure, case studies and various tasks, we can create safe environments in which failure can be discussed.

Stanford University, for example, seeks to educate students about resilience by hosting a week in which students can share their failures and setbacks. Similarly, a movement and event series that began in Mexico in 2012 allows people to share stories of professional failure. In doing so, they help reduce the stigma of failure for those who might be going through it or might experience it in the future. These platforms can also spark discussions about cultural variations in attitudes towards failures. Understanding different cultural attitudes towards failure can be particularly important in increasingly prevalent multicultural work teams.

Any discussion of failure should seek to enhance understanding not only of how people think about failure, but also how they feel about failure. By inducing uncertainty and failure in a relatively safe environment, we can help our students get to know what it feels like to fail and understand their default responses. Our default responses to failure are often underpinned by our mindset. 

According to Carol Dweck, author of, Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, for those with a fixed mindset, a failure or setback is self-defining: ‘If I fail at something, that makes me a failure,’ or ‘I’m no good at this’. Accordingly, situations where failure might occur such as projects with high uncertainty, are frequently avoided by those with a fixed mindset. In contrast, for those with a growth mindset, even though the failure is still a painful experience, it is something to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.

Pedagogic approaches that simulate uncertainty and failures, may help students understand their default responses and when coupled with having these responses questioned, may be able to develop new neural pathways for dealing with failure. Roleplays may be a powerful method for helping students understand failure better. How, for example, might you persuade a colleague to join a highly risky project?

Along similar lines, Notre Dame University’s Dean Shepherd suggests students might be asked to roleplay being a boss having to give a speech, announcing the closure of the business to employees or having to provide advice to an entrepreneur who appears to be coping badly with a failed business. Shepherd suggests that those who have failed (e.g. who have ‘lost’ their business) should oscillate between a restoration-orientation (whereby they move on and focus on new or different activities) and loss-orientation (whereby they focus on what they have lost and try to make sense of this loss). Too much of the latter can lead to rumination and negative emotions, which might get in the way of the individual moving on and functioning normally. But, too much of the former may mean there is minimal reflection on the failure and therefore limited understanding of what happened. To make the most of a failure, individuals will need to reflect on the failure but also bounce back and apply the learning in the form of changed behaviour.

If failures are inevitable in uncertain environments, we may also contemplate the idea of resilience training - a concept successfully introduced in both the military and Business Schools by the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Part of the training involves building psychological fitness, which involves challenging the default responses to failure. This process starts by helping individuals understand that their (emotional) responses to an adverse event (e.g. failure to launch a product successfully) is the result of their beliefs (e.g. ‘I’m a failure’) not the event itself.  The process then continues by teaching them ways to quickly and effectively dispel unproductive beliefs about the failure.

Even so, we’ve all been to one workshop or another, come away feeling enthused and excited to change our practices in one way or another and before we know it, we’re back in the usual patterns of work and all is forgotten. So, how do we develop the right habits when it comes to making the most of our failures? Like most things, it requires practice. Not just any practice though but rather, the kind of practice in which experts engage. Anders Ericsson, an ‘expert on experts’, calls this purposeful practice in his book, Peak.

Unlike regular practice, purposeful practice has a number of features including being focused on well-defined, specific goals; feedback; and getting out of your comfort zone. Applied to the context of maximising the learning from failure, purposeful practice might, for example, involve investing (limited) resources into a highly uncertain project (getting out of our comfort zone). It might also involve developing clear goals and being specific about what we want to learn from the project (for example, whether a particular technology works under certain conditions). Finally, it might involve regularly eliciting feedback both during and after the project. This feedback might include technical data (about how well the technology performed) as well as other data from project team members, users and other stakeholders. This regular feedback can limit the escalation of commitment but also yield new, surprising information.

Should failure occur, one useful method for fostering and capturing the effects of purposeful practice might be the creation of a failure report. A failure report captures reflections on the failure and, in so doing, clearly identifies the lessons learned. Knowing that one will have to create a failure report at the end of any project is likely to foster a discipline of purposeful practice. The benefits of creating such reports are likely to be the opening of dialogue around a failure in a team or organisation and helping to normalise acceptable failures. The knock-on effect is encouraging innovation and appropriate risk taking.

Risk taking and innovation often run counter to many individuals’ natural inclination to avoid failure. Future leaders therefore play a key role in creating what Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson refers to as a ‘psychologically safe’ environment. To create such an environment, leaders will need to help their followers understand the hallmarks of praiseworthy or intelligent failures (and delineate these clearly from blameworthy failures) and how to design projects such that learning can be maximised if failure occurs.  In her book, The End of Competitive Advantage, Rita Gunther McGrath, a Professor at Columbia Business School, argues that all organisations need to create a pipeline of transient advantages to replace those that have been competed away. Designing a systematic innovation process that supports experimentation, with intelligent failures built into the process, will therefore become all the more important. A key component on any such process will be the creation of a culture that shares and forgives failures and sometimes even celebrates them if they have been designed intelligently and lead to valuable learning. This might involve leaders sharing their own failures or conducting an intelligent failure audit, like the one suggested by Ashley Good, the Founder of Fail Forward, an organisation that helps other organisations learn how to innovate and build resilience.

On a final note, learning can and should take place after both successes and failures. Although the incentives to do a post-mortem following a failure may be greater, we may need even stronger incentives to understand why we succeeded. Therefore, while it is important to teach students about failure, it is just as important to teach them concepts like purposeful practice, resilience and tools that can facilitate systematic reflection (such as after-event reviews) to help them through both the ups and downs.

 Deniz Ucbasaran, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Warwick Business School