Learning from failure - a Growth Mindset

#1
Recently I have taken to looking at Psychology Today, or rather their website, in order to learn things. I have also had a very sobering reflection on my past. Anyway, this recent article got my attention:

On the Benefits of Failure

People who fail repeatedly develop persistence in the face of difficulties. President Harry Truman was perceived as a flop during his own life but stuck to his guns when it really mattered, such as firing the popular, but insubordinate, General MacArthur. Thomas Edison is remembered for the incandescent light bulb among many other key inventions in the Age of Electricity. He is said to have failed with a thousand different filaments before hitting on a material that worked.

Only people with extensive histories of failure could survive the difficulties that these individuals endured. Such dogged persistence is not a universal trait, of course. If it were, everyone would have a Ph. D.

With success, people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change. That is not just a human characteristic but constitutes a basic feature of how the mammalian brain works.

If a lab rat no longer gets rewarded for pressing a lever that had yielded food pellets before, it gets visibly upset. As its frantic efforts fail, it resorts to all manner of strange, or novel, reactions from grooming itself to biting the lever, or leaping into the air. It is learning that the world has changed and its brain is getting rewired, so to speak.

Whilst waiting to catch an aircraft from Exeter to Glasgow a couple of years ago. I bought Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It contained several main themes:

Firstly that success and improvement are built on failure, but this requires the ability to identify and act on lessons from failure, secondly that ego prevents people from seeing mistakes as such, therefore the opportunity to learn is lost, thirdly that trial and error is faster and more accurate then top down thinking, but that means intellectual rigour. Fourthly, large tasks can be improved by paying attention to small details, and making marginal improvements and low level, fifthly the blame game satisfies the need to evade responsibility, but it is harmful to everyone, and finally he argues that a growth culture demands a positive attitude to errors as learning opportunities.

Are we harnessing the power of failure? Has being able to do so been part of the reason the Asian Tiger economies has risen? Is failure to do so one of the reasons the High Street is dying? Can Government use it? What about defence - are we good at honestly learning from failures?

Edited to add tags of people who might be interested in innovation (or giving me a slap)...

@Yokel
@Guns
@A2_Matelot
@alfred_the_great
@Bouillabaisse
@instinct
@jim30
@Ravers
@SnagySnags
@Seadog
@seaweed
@Dunservin
@Magic_Mushroom
@Himmler74
@chasndave
@Sarastro
@Caecilius
@bobthebuilder
@ECMO1
@Wordsmith
@Not a Boffin
@Archimedes

Who else?
 
Last edited:
#4
British retail fails because it consistently fails to give customers what they want. For example, try shopping for size 7-8 shoes, or 32" waist trousers. The majority of shops only stock 10 pairs of these for the entire summer season. Why 10? Because they sold 10 pairs last year.... retail doesn't capture the number of missed sale, ie lost sales due to inadequate stock levels. Consequently, end of season they have several pairs of 40-44" waist trousers, and size 12-14 shoes. And so anyone who does suggest increasing stock levels cannot prove (to a senior manager's satisfaction) that such a radical idea has merit.

British industry is inherently adverse to new ideas, beyond that of change, where change is a euphemism for cost-cutting and headcount reduction. I could make any supermarket around £100million a year additional revenue - almost pure profit - by leveraging their core-competency (which isn't selling, supermarkets do not sell a thing, they provide items). But supermarkets do not realise what their core-competency actually is, and are now wondering why Amazon are threatening them. Indeed, the response of the Big 4 to the vertical sector threat from Aldi and Lidl, and the out-of-sector threat from Amazon - is to try to improve profitabillity by reducing costs (headcount, supplier price, product range). What they are not doing is looking at new markets.

This isn't due to "failure to succeed", its due to failure of imagination or fear of change. Or indeed, lack of a "lightbulb" moment.

The problem is compounded by management failing to recruit outside of the industry; who is the best individual to ask why something is done/not done? Someone who is outside, and not captured by the system or culture. The NHS is another sterling example of this; the idea that the NHS has to pay £250,000 for a Trust CEO, in order to compete with the private sector and attract the best talent. Yet the NHS rarely recruits someone from the private sector, because senior-level NHS experience is a pre-requisite for the role. And so, no new blood is bought in, hence no fresh thinking.

Regards failure? Make a mistake in many organisations and thats curtains for you. Yet, what do we hear when there are large-scale cock-ups? "Lessons have been identified/learned". What goes unsaid is the individual deemed responsible has been moved on. Which is entirely detrimental to learning anything, as the person who has learned the most has been moved on*, ergo the learnt lesson walks away with the person.

This can be observed in almost any organisation in a crisis - the first instinct is to find out who is to blame, rather then what has gone wrong and how do we fix it, then identify how it happened and how it can be prevented.


*unless the person is complete idiot, and wholly unsuitable.
 
#5

_Chimurenga_

LE
Gallery Guru
#6
"Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong." ---Umberto Eco
 
#8
The problem is compounded by management failing to recruit outside of the industry; who is the best individual to ask why something is done/not done? Someone who is outside, and not captured by the system or culture.
Amen to that. I recently left a US Golf company, and the industry is eye-wateringly incestuous.

Carlsbad, California, a small sleepy but wealthy town midway between LA and San Diego, has the following global headquarters, all within a few miles of each other.

1529989997178.png
 
#9
Recently I have taken to looking at Psychology Today, or rather their website, in order to learn things. I have also had a very sobering reflection on my past. Anyway, this recent article got my attention:

On the Benefits of Failure

People who fail repeatedly develop persistence in the face of difficulties. President Harry Truman was perceived as a flop during his own life but stuck to his guns when it really mattered, such as firing the popular, but insubordinate, General MacArthur. Thomas Edison is remembered for the incandescent light bulb among many other key inventions in the Age of Electricity. He is said to have failed with a thousand different filaments before hitting on a material that worked.

Only people with extensive histories of failure could survive the difficulties that these individuals endured. Such dogged persistence is not a universal trait, of course. If it were, everyone would have a Ph. D.

With success, people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change. That is not just a human characteristic but constitutes a basic feature of how the mammalian brain works.

If a lab rat no longer gets rewarded for pressing a lever that had yielded food pellets before, it gets visibly upset. As its frantic efforts fail, it resorts to all manner of strange, or novel, reactions from grooming itself to biting the lever, or leaping into the air. It is learning that the world has changed and its brain is getting rewired, so to speak.

Whilst waiting to catch an aircraft from Exeter to Glasgow a couple of years ago. I bought Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It contained several main themes:

Firstly that success and improvement are built on failure, but this requires the ability to identify and act on lessons from failure, secondly that ego prevents people from seeing mistakes as such, therefore the opportunity to learn is lost, thirdly that trial and error is faster and more accurate then top down thinking, but that means intellectual rigour. Fourthly, large tasks can be improved by paying attention to small details, and making marginal improvements and low level, fifthly the blame game satisfies the need to evade responsibility, but it is harmful to everyone, and finally he argues that a growth culture demands a positive attitude to errors as learning opportunities.

Are we harnessing the power of failure? Has being able to do so been part of the reason the Asian Tiger economies has risen? Is failure to do so one of the reasons the High Street is dying? Can Government use it? What about defence - are we good at honestly learning from failures?
Failure is a matter of timing. In the examples you cite Truman and Edison can't really be said to have failed since they were ultimately successful. Although anyone who watches Big Bang Theory knows that Edison didn't invent the light bulb. Both Truman and Edison were working towards a goal, which they ultimately achieved. Edison apparently by having a great publicist.
 
#11
Progress in government is definitely based on risk aversion, which by definition means that failure is punished by a career-ending firing or resignation. As a consequence, we have leaders who have achieved seniority partly because they have avoided major scandals, as opposed to being competent. PMTM is a case in point. She is 'safe'.
My point is that failure is generally punished by removing the person who fails, or sidelining them. The 'failure' may not then be able to take forward the lessons learned. The institution can still take forward the lessons but this tends to be done by a knee-jerk 'stop this from happening again' reaction rather than from reflective learning.
Thankfully, at less senior levels, there is still an understanding that mistakes happen, and a willingness to let people learn from them.
Very interesting subject OP. It made me think about those who succeed until such time as they fail so badly that it ends in disaster. As the disaster unfolds, does the previous record of success mean the person cannot react adequately to the situation? Gen. Percival in Malaya/Singapore is a case in point. Brave, intelligent, reliable, liked by his men. Then, in 1941/2, unable to respond to events.
 
#12
British retail fails because it consistently fails to give customers what they want. For example, try shopping for size 7-8 shoes, or 32" waist trousers. The majority of shops only stock 10 pairs of these for the entire summer season. Why 10? Because they sold 10 pairs last year.... retail doesn't capture the number of missed sale, ie lost sales due to inadequate stock levels. Consequently, end of season they have several pairs of 40-44" waist trousers, and size 12-14 shoes. And so anyone who does suggest increasing stock levels cannot prove (to a senior manager's satisfaction) that such a radical idea has merit.

British industry is inherently adverse to new ideas, beyond that of change, where change is a euphemism for cost-cutting and headcount reduction. I could make any supermarket around £100million a year additional revenue - almost pure profit - by leveraging their core-competency (which isn't selling, supermarkets do not sell a thing, they provide items). But supermarkets do not realise what their core-competency actually is, and are now wondering why Amazon are threatening them. Indeed, the response of the Big 4 to the vertical sector threat from Aldi and Lidl, and the out-of-sector threat from Amazon - is to try to improve profitabillity by reducing costs (headcount, supplier price, product range). What they are not doing is looking at new markets.

This isn't due to "failure to succeed", its due to failure of imagination or fear of change. Or indeed, lack of a "lightbulb" moment.

The problem is compounded by management failing to recruit outside of the industry; who is the best individual to ask why something is done/not done? Someone who is outside, and not captured by the system or culture. The NHS is another sterling example of this; the idea that the NHS has to pay £250,000 for a Trust CEO, in order to compete with the private sector and attract the best talent. Yet the NHS rarely recruits someone from the private sector, because senior-level NHS experience is a pre-requisite for the role. And so, no new blood is bought in, hence no fresh thinking.

Regards failure? Make a mistake in many organisations and thats curtains for you. Yet, what do we hear when there are large-scale cock-ups? "Lessons have been identified/learned". What goes unsaid is the individual deemed responsible has been moved on. Which is entirely detrimental to learning anything, as the person who has learned the most has been moved on*, ergo the learnt lesson walks away with the person.

This can be observed in almost any organisation in a crisis - the first instinct is to find out who is to blame, rather then what has gone wrong and how do we fix it, then identify how it happened and how it can be prevented.


*unless the person is complete idiot, and wholly unsuitable.
A point that my other half made when she was a buyer for a large catalogue firm. Suffice to say, she’s no longer there. And that was 20 years ago. With more modern stock control methods, there’s no excuse.

On the NHS, I agree to a large extent. Equally, there is a need to have knowledge of the system. I’ve met some very good senior executives. I’ve also met those who make an art of playing the system. Hm. I wonder where else that happens...
 
#13
Progress in government is definitely based on risk aversion, which by definition means that failure is punished by a career-ending firing or resignation. As a consequence, we have leaders who have achieved seniority partly because they have avoided major scandals, as opposed to being competent. PMTM is a case in point. She is 'safe'.
My point is that failure is generally punished by removing the person who fails, or sidelining them. The 'failure' may not then be able to take forward the lessons learned. The institution can still take forward the lessons but this tends to be done by a knee-jerk 'stop this from happening again' reaction rather than from reflective learning.
Thankfully, at less senior levels, there is still an understanding that mistakes happen, and a willingness to let people learn from them.
Very interesting subject OP. It made me think about those who succeed until such time as they fail so badly that it ends in disaster. As the disaster unfolds, does the previous record of success mean the person cannot react adequately to the situation? Gen. Percival in Malaya/Singapore is a case in point. Brave, intelligent, reliable, liked by his men. Then, in 1941/2, unable to respond to events.
Also, define failure.

Say, for instance, a local authority, acting as a national pilot, installs a new road traffic management system which proves less than adequate. It’s a pilot, a test, and you’ve proved it doesn’t work.

From an engineering perspective, that’s a valid outcome. However, the headline is ‘Government wastes £2m on failed traffic scheme’. It was in fact anything but.

The solution would be better news management. Not lying or spin but a measured and reasonable response. Too often, however, the media ‘response’ is to just take a kicking.
 
#14
Partial success is the worst outcome in many ways. One if my clients - big communications infrastructure provider - has the most zig-zagged project process I have ever come across.

The reason is that it "sort of works" so they get there in the end. Everyone is scared to tinker with the flawed process in case it then fails.

Much better to accept a couple of fails and end up with something tried and proven that could save months and in some cases years on what are actually fairly simple projects.
 
#15
Partial success is the worst outcome in many ways. One if my clients - big communications infrastructure provider - has the most zig-zagged project process I have ever come across.

The reason is that it "sort of works" so they get there in the end. Everyone is scared to tinker with the flawed process in case it then fails.

Much better to accept a couple of fails and end up with something tried and proven that could save months and in some cases years on what are actually fairly simple projects.
Or the “bang a square into a round hole” scenario. Take the traffic management example given above...how many instances, in organisations, does something get proposed - people are afraid of being seen as negative so support it...it is then implemented and...does to work. The “yes men” still don’t want to be seen as being negative, the higher ups don’t want to be proven wrong and...the whole thing is adopted anyway because it cost so much money to implement in the first place.
“If it doesn’t work- we’ll make it work” attitude.
 
#16
Or the “bang a square into a round hole” scenario. Take the traffic management example given above...how many instances, in organisations, does something get proposed - people are afraid of being seen as negative so support it...it is then implemented and...does to work. The “yes men” still don’t want to be seen as being negative, the higher ups don’t want to be proven wrong and...the whole thing is adopted anyway because it cost so much money to implement in the first place.
“If it doesn’t work- we’ll make it work” attitude.
The AJAX ‘medium tank’.
 
#17
British retail fails because it consistently fails to give customers what they want. For example, try shopping for size 7-8 shoes, or 32" waist trousers. The majority of shops only stock 10 pairs of these for the entire summer season. Why 10? Because they sold 10 pairs last year.... retail doesn't capture the number of missed sale, ie lost sales due to inadequate stock levels. Consequently, end of season they have several pairs of 40-44" waist trousers, and size 12-14 shoes. And so anyone who does suggest increasing stock levels cannot prove (to a senior manager's satisfaction) that such a radical idea has merit.

British industry is inherently adverse to new ideas, beyond that of change, where change is a euphemism for cost-cutting and headcount reduction. I could make any supermarket around £100million a year additional revenue - almost pure profit - by leveraging their core-competency (which isn't selling, supermarkets do not sell a thing, they provide items). But supermarkets do not realise what their core-competency actually is, and are now wondering why Amazon are threatening them. Indeed, the response of the Big 4 to the vertical sector threat from Aldi and Lidl, and the out-of-sector threat from Amazon - is to try to improve profitabillity by reducing costs (headcount, supplier price, product range). What they are not doing is looking at new markets.

This isn't due to "failure to succeed", its due to failure of imagination or fear of change. Or indeed, lack of a "lightbulb" moment.

The problem is compounded by management failing to recruit outside of the industry; who is the best individual to ask why something is done/not done? Someone who is outside, and not captured by the system or culture. The NHS is another sterling example of this; the idea that the NHS has to pay £250,000 for a Trust CEO, in order to compete with the private sector and attract the best talent. Yet the NHS rarely recruits someone from the private sector, because senior-level NHS experience is a pre-requisite for the role. And so, no new blood is bought in, hence no fresh thinking.

Regards failure? Make a mistake in many organisations and thats curtains for you. Yet, what do we hear when there are large-scale cock-ups? "Lessons have been identified/learned". What goes unsaid is the individual deemed responsible has been moved on. Which is entirely detrimental to learning anything, as the person who has learned the most has been moved on*, ergo the learnt lesson walks away with the person.

This can be observed in almost any organisation in a crisis - the first instinct is to find out who is to blame, rather then what has gone wrong and how do we fix it, then identify how it happened and how it can be prevented.


*unless the person is complete idiot, and wholly unsuitable.
On holiday at the mo' touring the southwest seaside, and no wonder it all went to the dogs, retail loons everywhere. Perhaps you're right in suggesting people are too stupid to learn. To be fair, the worst villages and towns have been deliberately run down and abused, so it's local authorities and business to blame. Also crippling business rates, high rents or leases. As an entity, Business kids itself it's doing well down here. Lidl and Wetherspoons do well, but that's about it. Nobody asks why Lidl and Wetherspoons are always full.

The state of British commerce and leadership shames the country , tbh. In the towns, High Streets are full of estate agents and hipster sales types, and rip off phone shops, 'Art' shops, junk shops, charity shops, 'mystical' shops and designer cafes, ffs. And factory shops selling more junk. All topped off by the famous southwest 'couldn't give a toss' ethic. Apparently the one man band kamikazes are gone inside a month and then the next one opens.

Pubs are struggling. One or two major suppliers control all the village shops; local meat and organic hipster suppliers hike prices beyond average reach, and most shops shift tons of tinned and microwavable food. The southwest is great and unlike anywhere else in UK, but ffs.
 
#18
If at first you don't succeed. Free fall parachuting may not be for you.
Anon.
No charge.

Also, define failure.

Say, for instance, a local authority, acting as a national pilot, installs a new road traffic management system which proves less than adequate. It’s a pilot, a test, and you’ve proved it doesn’t work.

From an engineering perspective, that’s a valid outcome. However, the headline is ‘Government wastes £2m on failed traffic scheme’. It was in fact anything but.
Thankfully the same logic isn't applied to heart surgery.

Working in IT, one of the key differentiators between us and the States I see is that they're not afraid to try, not afraid to fail, but they fail fast. No egos are at stake. If something doesn't work, it's pulled sharpish before significant investments are made, then start on the next try.
 
#19
Working in IT, one of the key differentiators between us and the States I see is that they're not afraid to try, not afraid to fail, but they fail fast. No egos are at stake. If something doesn't work, it's pulled sharpish before significant investments are made, then start on the next try.
Indeed. This from the OP:
large tasks can be improved by paying attention to small details, and making marginal improvements at low level
...whereas we Brits, in the public sector at least, tend to go for monolithic projects and paradigm shifts. The NHS's national IT project and (here it comes again...) FRES spring to mind.
 
#20
Also, define failure.

Say, for instance, a local authority, acting as a national pilot, installs a new road traffic management system which proves less than adequate. It’s a pilot, a test, and you’ve proved it doesn’t work.

From an engineering perspective, that’s a valid outcome. However, the headline is ‘Government wastes £2m on failed traffic scheme’. It was in fact anything but.

The solution would be better news management. Not lying or spin but a measured and reasonable response. Too often, however, the media ‘response’ is to just take a kicking.
You have to really learn the weasel words of change:

"Loamshire unitary authority recently initiated the soft roll out of the beta version of a new dynamic road user empowerment scheme. The high level of User engagement and feedback has been very reassuring and will add to the information set being built.
Though some of the data points collected have fallen outside anticipated parameters, the learnings collated will be studied and integrated into the next iteration wherever financially viable.
The LUA deeply regrets any inconvenience caused to the road user community and thanks them for their continued patience and forbearance in the ongoing evolution of delivered services."
 

New Posts

Latest Threads

Top