Creating an Expectation of Failure

“We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new … And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to diminish our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.”   Ed Catmull—founder of Pixar

Pixar, the company responsible for popular movies such as Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life, boasts a culture of failure.  Led by founder Ed Catmull and true of many of the company’s leaders the expectation at Pixar is that if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks.

Catmull, goes on to explain that when people talk about learning from failures and that is the positive view.  However, the more common view of failure is to equate failure with messing up or being not smart. In business failure is a source of angst.  In school, failure is a source of shame.

Andrew Stanton, a Pixar employee, says, “fail early and fail fast…be wrong as fast as you can.” No one would expect to learn to ride a bike without stumbling at first.  Stanton suggests that if we would apply this mindset to all new attempts it would overcome the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. He suggests this is a way to go beyond learning from failure to understanding that failure is an essential part of a successful outcome.

10-successive-01One of the habits of a systems thinker offers a strategy to help embrace failure.  A systems thinker checks results and changes actions if needed.  This habit is also referred to as successive approximation.  Successive approximation is grounded in the belief that all great work will require adjustments a long the way.  Anticipating those minor adjustments is one way to embrace failure.

What are some ways you could bring the expectation of failure to your personal life, your work place or your school system?  The results could be amazing!


Seeing Circles with Six-year-olds

What happens when first grade students are asked to make connections, given some chalk, a sidewalk, a simple drawing, some rocks and a garden? The answer is: an enthusiastic rendering of new ideas about how the world works.garden1s

At Borton Magnet School, Molly Reed, Outdoor Learning Coordinator, brought a group of first graders out to the school’s garden to help maintain various projects in progress. What also resulted was an impromptu lesson about garden health.

  • What does it mean for our garden to be healthy?
  • How do we know it’s healthy?
  • What increases the garden’s health and what decreases it?

Blank stock-flow templates and behavior-over-time graphs were painted directly on the sidewalk there, just waiting for students to think about the dynamics and interconnected nature of the garden. Rocks and chalk were standing by. The stock became “Garden health” and the flows increased and decreased that health.

garden2sStudents chose rocks painted with words of different garden parts, placed them near the inflow or outflow, and drew cause-and-effect arrows. They showed that some “rock elements” directly affect the increase of garden health, such as sunlight. Some rock elements affect one another, such as the worms affect the soil [quality], which increases the health of the garden. Other rock elements affect the decrease of garden health, such as animals that eat plants.



The “big question” about feedback came then; it’s a question that teachers sometimes wonder whether their young students can understand.  “How does the stock affect other parts of the system?”

Can students understand this concept of feedback in a stock-flow map? That is, can they represent how a particular stock affects other parts of the system they’re drawing? The only way to find out is to be willing to take a leap, to put a question about feedback out there, and see how students respond. Questions like:

  • “How does the health of the garden affect other parts?”
  • “What happens if you have a really healthy garden; what will that affect?”

Without any additional prompting, one girl immediately described a connection between the stock of garden health and the worms. She drew an arrow to represent her idea. So the healthier the garden is, the more worms there will be. Another student saw a connection between health and soil, adding on another arrow to show his idea.garden4s

So given the chance, the short answer is a resounding yes! Students can take the next step beyond seeing what increases and decreases a stock. They can indeed realize that the stock is also an important part of the system that affects other parts, thus illustrating the feedback relationships that exist in their garden.

The next challenge: can young students see the feedback loop they created in the stock-flow map and then draw it out as a causal loop? That’s  a “big question” for another day.