To fail is to learn

After leaving school I worked in a library for a year and was in the music and drama section for six months. Towards the end of that time I was trusted enough that they let me prepare some orders for new stock. We needed to buy the orchestral parts for the Requiem Mass by Gabriel Faure. I prepared a standard order – six first violin parts, six second violin parts, four violas, four cellos and two double basses, plus all the brass, woodwind and percussion. It duly arrived and was labelled up ready to be borrowed. As it happens a choir that I sang with was performing the Faure Requiem, and hired the orchestral parts  for the concert. So when it came time to have a rehearsal with the orchestra I went up to our chorus master to proudly let him know that I had supplied the orchestral parts from the library.

Then he told me that there was a bit of a mess up.  The Faure Requiem string orchestration is unusual. It has just one violin part but the violas are split into first and second, and the cellos are too. So my standard order resulted in 12 copies of the violin part, and only two copies of each of the various viola and cello parts! My mouth dried up and I didn’t say anything but slunk away. Next time I that I had to order some parts I made sure to check  the instrumentation of the piece first.

How do you handle failure? Is it something to feel ashamed of, something that  that threatens your sense of esteem? Is it something to be concealed at all costs, denied, or blamed on someone else? This is an instinctive response for many of us. Or do you regard it just as a fact – something to be noted and investigated? Something that you can learn from and that helps you to improve? I’ve just read Matthew Syed’s book Black box thinking. In it, he shows how damaging our instinctive response to failure is and how beneficial is the learning approach. The book tries to show how failure is something we must learn from, how it is a necessary part of improving.

Matthew Syed begins by contrasting how failure is treated in healthcare and in aviation. In healthcare there is a culture of blame whereby errors are concealed and seen as marks of shame. Anyone who admits to an error will take the blame. In aviation every error, failure, incident or near miss, is treated as an opportunity (nay, a necessity) to learn and improve. There is no culture of blame. In countless examples Syed shows the harm done by a working culture that does not see failure as an opportunity for improvement.

A teacher once told me that ignorance (specifically the recognition of one’s own ignorance) is the first step towards learning. If you know everything then obviously you can learn nothing more. In a similarly paradoxical way Syed insists that failure is a necessary stage on the way to success.

He explains how our need to conceal errors or to blame others for them is a form of cognitive dissonance. If I am a leading expert on heart surgery then I will struggle to face up to my role in a failed heart operation – it strikes at the core of my expertise, my self. Syed lists several extreme examples of the mental contortions that people go through to avoid having to admit error. His examples come from law enforcement, healthcare, politics, religious cults and pseudoscience. He explains how people can have a ‘closed loop’ way of thinking: “It’s right because it’s right”.

Failure can be useful in many scenarios. It is important for innovation. James Dyson tested more than 5,000 different prototypes before his vacuum cleaner was ready to market. He was initially driven to develop his novel design by the failure of the prevailing models of vacuum cleaners. Syed also describes how a washing machine manufacturer used an evolutionary development process to make improvements to a powder nozzle. They changed something, tested it, then accepted or rejected the change and repeated the process. After many iterations (and failures) this resulted in a much-improved nozzle.

In cycling, the Team Sky system of marginal gains relies on a similar system of trial and error. Across the business world randomised controlled trials have been adopted, for instance to improve response rates to letters and emails sent to customers. The colour, font and wording can be tweaked and the response rate from customers measured to see what works best.

Syed also draws on psychological research. He describes how people with a ‘growth mindset’ have been shown to be more open to learning and to attempting challenges beyond their experience, whereas people with a ‘fixed mindset’ almost fail before they try. A ‘fixed mindset’ leads people to believe they cannot learn new skills and to fear blame for failures.

I felt a bit bludgeoned by the book – the key points are made, vividly illustrated, made again, reinforced with further examples. I longed for an executive summary! But the book certainly drives its point home and it pierced my own closed-loop thinking.  It made me question  whether I embrace failure, or I rationalise failures out of existence. Do I blame colleagues for failures? How can I innovate better?

Syed asks:

“Do you fail in your judgements? Do you ever get access to the evidence that shows where you might be going wrong? Are your decisions ever challenged by objective data? If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’ you are almost certainly not learning”.

The book’s emphasis on trying things out and responding to evidence puts me in mind a bit of the Library UX movement.  I’ve been to a couple of Library UX workshops and the strong message I took away is that it’s wrong to assume anything – we must question what we think we know and test reactions to our services.

Am I brave enough to share my failures here? I certainly do make mistakes, and fail to do things I meant to. I think I have ordered two copies of a book by mistake in the past – forgetting that I’d already ordered it. I failed to get a project off the ground as I had tried to do it all by myself and that just wasn’t feasible. When the internet was new I set up a gopher, then a website, then a better website etc etc, gradually approaching something worthwhile. I learnt something from that about incremental development. Each stage was useful in persuading more people it was a good idea.

I remember an error from much longer ago. When I was 16 I had a summer job working in a bank.  The branch manager asked me to refill the red inkwell on his desk, and told me not to overfill it.  The red ink was in an enormous bottle so I found pouring a small amount of ink into the well rather tricky. I thought I’d done it right but later that afternoon the manager was in a fury as a red stain spread through his handsome wooden desk. His resourceful secretary managed to sort things out and I laid low for a while. I learnt that ink bottles were not my friend.

It would be interesting to hear of any of your failures and lessons learnt, or improvements made through error.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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