Failure by any other name is still…a great learning opportunity

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For the past few years, I’ve been researching how people in conservation handle failure. Many people I’ve talked to feel sort of like this conservationist from a regional NGO:

“We need to be more open to learning from what isn’t working…but part of the challenge is the baggage associated with the word failure…it feels so personal.” 

 After all this time, the word still hasn’t fully lost its emotional punch for me, and I talk about it nearly every day. We have a natural set of emotional and cognitive defenses that kick in when we try to confront failure. We tie ourselves up in knots trying to spin it into success, find other ways to describe it (my favorite by far that I found in my recent literature review has to be “cock-up”), or deny its existence by sweeping it under the rug and moving on to the next project without reflecting on the work we just completed. 

Even if we do talk about it, we can get lost in the weeds about whether what happened was actually a failure or not. I would argue that many conservation projects are sufficiently complex that trying to nail down whether a particular outcome should be called a failure or not is sort of beside the point. Rather, as Ashley Good, founder of Fail Forward suggests, our aim should be to use failure as a starting point to move forward more wisely.

 If we shift our mindset and view failure as a learning opportunity, we can begin the productive work of identifying, analyzing, and correcting the parts of a project that didn’t meet our expectations. If you are a team leader, the most important thing you can do starting tomorrow morning is make time for regular reflection sessions with your team. You might call it a “pause and reflect,” a “debrief,” or an “after action review.” Make it safe for everyone in the team to speak up, banish blame from your vocabulary, ask open-ended questions that dig below the surface to find out why and not just what, address team dynamics as well as task performance…and then spread those lessons around.

If you work alone or as part of a less defined work group, try to set aside 10-15 minutes every couple of days to reflect on your own work, and maybe find a colleague to chat with about it. Whatever you call it and however you do it, making time to conduct an effective reflection session changes our mindsets, sends a strong signal that learning is valued, and normalizes the inevitable presence of failure in every undertaking. Failure may be hard to define and even more difficult to confront, but with practice we can get better at minimizing the baggage in order to maximize our learning.

What’s been your experience with trying to learn from failure?



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Allison Catalano

PhD Candidate, Imperial College London

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