Never Waste a Good Failure: Opportunities for Learning (Part 2)

By Allison Catalano, Jon Fisher & Heidi Kretser | March 16, 2021

Photo: ©Gustavo Frazao

In Part 1 of this blog, we covered the barriers to learning from failure, as identified by participants at the 2020 North America Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) workshop, “Never Waste a Good Failure: What You Can Do to Fail Intelligently and Why It Matters.”

Here we pivot to ideas participants generated to encourage learning from failure, with a focus on shifting the culture in conservation toward viewing failure as a normal outcome in complex systems and a valuable learning opportunity.

To kick off the discussion at the workshop, we asked Heather Thorne, a guest speaker from Google, to share her experience with high-performing teams and the research her company conducted about team effectiveness. She cited “psychological safety” as a critical factor for helping teams learn from failure.

Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson, who has a doctorate in organizational behavior, defines the concept as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” (Edmondson, 1999). In other words, although it’s hard to talk about mistakes and failures, a high level of team psychological safety can foster appropriate risk-taking, and most importantly learning, among team members.

Model learning behavior within your small team by openly sharing failure, learning from each other, and building trust, while avoiding criticizing the messenger or assigning blame.

We then asked conference participants to share their reactions to this question: “What individual factors encourage learning from failure in conservation?”

Their responses regarding individual factors fell into five broad categories, listed here from most to least frequently mentioned:

1. Model learning behavior within your small team by openly sharing failure, learning from each other, and building trust, while avoiding criticizing the messenger or assigning blame. Participants realized that these individual behaviors could improve team effectiveness, cohesiveness, and organizational culture.

2. Share failures with colleagues in other teams and organizations; sometimes it’s easier to share difficult experiences with people outside your network. This boundary spanning can also generate novel ideas for overcoming obstacles.

3. Build a support system and make time for self-reflection and self-care. Acknowledge the emotional impact of failure as normal and expected, and allow time to grieve if necessary.

4. Think of success and failure as positioned along a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Recognize that failure is a normal part of working in complex systems and almost never a reason to cast blame. Reframe failure as a learning opportunity that produces continued improvement: Identifying what a team or individual did well and where they could improve is much more helpful than labels of “success” and “failure.”

5. Embrace the benefits of a growth mindset (Dweck 2006), realizing that intelligence isn’t fixed and we can all learn and get smarter. Taking time to seriously reflect on failures and mistakes is a valuable opportunity to improve personal and professional success rather than evidence of shortcomings.

We also asked conference participants to share their reactions to this question: “What organizational factors encourage learning from failure in conservation?”

Think of success and failure as positioned along a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Recognize that failure is a normal part of working in complex systems.

The ideas that participants identified for organizations to encourage learning from failure were wide-ranging, falling into seven broad categories (again from most to least frequently mentioned).

1. Rewarding learning as an explicit outcome by requiring grantees to share, without penalty, what didn’t work and what lessons they learned. Funding or supporting monitoring, evaluation, and continuous testing for what is and isn’t working — and changing tactics when needed.

2. Modeling and rewarding — by organizational leaders at all levels — vulnerability, learning, and useful failure to help instill a culture that values learning from failure. This means sharing failures and mistakes and supporting staff who do the same.

3. Removing rewards for overstated success and penalties for failure, and helping staff understand that honest discussions of failure are expected, valued, and welcomed.

4. Evaluating individual performance primarily on what staff and grantees said they would do (their actions and outputs) while evaluating the performance of programs based on how well they achieve intended outcomes.

5. Dedicating resources for measurement, reflection, and learning, and committing to a robust process to understand and then disseminate the lessons this work leads to.

6. Hiring diverse teams who are experienced with failure and are comfortable discussing it.

7. In project design, including requirements for pilot testing and adaptive management from the start, taking an iterative approach as opposed to a big upfront plan with limited opportunities to change course.

Participants felt strongly that for conservation to succeed, learning from failure is critical. They acknowledged that many barriers to effective learning from failure in conservation exist, but that there are several ways to shift the culture and practices toward valuing failure. Let’s get started, and not waste another failure!

Allison Catalano is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College of London; Jon Fisher is Conservation Science Officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts; Heidi Kretser is Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator, WCS North America.

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References:

Dweck, Carol S. “Mindset: The new psychology of success.” New York: Random House. (2006)

Edmondson, Amy. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, no. 2 (1999), 350–383.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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