Failure Is an Option


May 27, 2014


Does our fear of failure stifle our creativity and innovation?

Focusing on failure may seem like an odd way to inaugurate a blog on strengthening schools and communities. But failure is a significant and everyday fact of life. As the pizza lovers among you might know, one major takeout chain has even made “failure is an option” the catch phrase of its latest advertising campaign.

This made me think about the role of “failure” in education. After all, there is much talk in education about “failing” schools. There’s also a lot of discussion about “failed efforts” at improving schools and communities.

As I write this entry, a new baseball season has just started. That’s a good reminder about the relative nature of failure. In today’s game, if a Major League Baseball hitter fails only 7 out of 10 times he is a superstar. A team that wins more than 100 games in a season, which has only been done twice in the past five seasons, still fails about 4 of every 10 tries. So how should we think about failure in the context of efforts to improve schools and strengthen communities?

When I taught school, I used my love of baseball to convince myself that I was having a good week if I reached a .400 average—that is, if 4 out of 10 of my lessons were “successful.” I struggled to make sure that every lesson I taught worked, but I also knew that they would often fail. These failures offered an opportunity to make sure I taught a better lesson the next time. They also reminded me about how hard it is to teach.

So failure may be inevitable and commonplace in education. But failure may also be necessary to drive improvements in education.

Sometimes failure is good

In innovation, failure is a byproduct of the creative process. Most ideas, even the best ones, fail when put into practice. That is why when our organization provides support for school improvement, it does so through a process in which we work with partners to promote experimentation that is disciplined by the frequent use of data. The process involves checking progress, adjusting thinking, and planning for future action. We believe that this approach can lead to rapid and sustainable change.

While we and others have had some success in using innovation to drive improvement, we have much to learn from other sectors, such as product design and engineering—and perhaps even carry out pizza companies. For example, IDEO, one of the world’s most admired product design firms, follows a methodology that is based on the following dictum, “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.” (Readers interested in exploring the application of IDEO’s methods to education might wish to download their free guide to Design Thinking for Educators.)

In education, we are hampered because many of our accountability policies create conditions that promote compliance over innovation. They encourage people to run away from or hide problems rather than solve them. What we need in education is more opportunity to innovate in a disciplined fashion, and to be wrong as we search for better solutions.

There’s a lot of talk about success in our country, but maybe, in terms of creating strong schools and communities, if you are not failing you are doing something wrong!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on innovation and improvement. Have there been situations in the past that you thought of as failures that in hindsight, were actually opportunities for improvement? How do you approach systematic innovation and improvement in your school or district?

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Our new blog, Northwest Matters, is a place for discussing ideas and innovations, what we’ve learned, and where we’re heading. We’re bringing a Northwest perspective to issues in education that matter across the country. We look forward to seeing you here every two weeks!