Praise Worthy Failures

EP 7

Are you and your team ready to learn from failure? Simon argues that improvers test and sharpen their ideas by trying things out in the real world of schools and classrooms. The goal shouldn’t be to get everything right from the beginning. But rather to set ourselves up to learn our way forward and make better mistakes every term. Simon shows why building a culture of curiosity and learning from praise worthy failure is crucial for continuous improvement in complex environments like schools.


I’ve been fortunate over the last couple of days to be working side by side with some teacher and mid-level leaders who are leading their own innovation and implementation projects within their school environments. And I was speaking with them and I said, look, I’m really excited for you all. I love the passion that you are bringing to this work. But given school change and school innovation is complex, messy, and well unpredictable, Hey, independent of how well you’ve planned up your beautiful projects here, you know, there’s more ways for these to not work than work, right? And I was playfully helping them sort of step into this space of saying, if you work with other humans, you work in dynamic environments like schools. If you’ve got changing community landscape and policy landscape and other elements of leader leadership landscape, we shouldn’t expect some sort of high degree of probability that if we go in, even with evidence formed informed ideas, that we’re necessarily gonna get things moving and get the impact that we want from the outset.

Instead, I think it’s better to have a underlying expectation that as we get into the work, we’re gonna have to just focus on making better mistakes each and every cycle. It’s one of the reasons why I really love the language of agility or responsiveness in our leadership efforts. It releases us from this idea of thinking we’ve gotta get it right the first time. And it says, look, actually, there’s both praiseworthy failure and blameworthy failure. Praiseworthy failure is when we get after it and try to do something in a complex environment where we’ve of course built our idea on the best available evidence and the best available experience of others, but then we’ve got out, we’ve tried it out, and it’s not always gonna work. And I want to say that’s praiseworthy because that effort is often gonna result in new and fresh learning and insights, and it’s gonna set us up to take better steps next time.

I guess there is a blameworthy failure, but that’s not because something doesn’t work, but it, it’s because it doesn’t work, because we don’t even put that minimum first effort of checking in on whether or not, you know, we’ve got a research informed approach and we’re building in some of the insights that our broader field already knows about how to make things work. But I’m really interested in leaders stepping in and realising that on their journey to impact, they’re probably gonna have multiple times where things don’t work. And actually they’re gonna be engaging in what I’d call praiseworthy failure, a friend and mentor, and someone I’ve learned a huge amount from in educational practise and research is Professor Michael Fullen. And he’s got a great turn of phrase, actually, he’s got a great turn of phrase for most things. But when he’s talking about this area, he says, being right at the end is better than being right at the beginning.

Isn’t that terrific? Is this sense that as we get into the work, we’ve gotta actually set ourselves up to expect that multiple things won’t go well? Not because we’re not bright or well-intentioned or working hard, but we’re just working in complex environments and we have to constantly be willing to pause and say, Hey, um, for whom did this work well? And what might be some of the enabling conditions that are leading to that positive impact? Great. But equally, where’s this not working for whom, why, and under what conditions? And indeed, to be honest, early on in the change effort, I’m gonna learn a lot more from where things aren’t working from some of that bad variability. Unfortunately, too often we find ourselves in conversations where people fill the space, talking about the one or two beautiful exceptions, when we should really be digging in with a mindset of curiosity and saying, yeah, but what’s not working the way we planned?

And what can we learn from that? Not sure about you, but my phone is always asking me to update apps these days. And even when I don’t ask it to, for many of them, it just automatically does. So if you ever open up one of the apps that’s being updated on your phone, what you’ll notice is it normally has the language of this version has improvements for performance or better performance and bug fixes. And of course, bugs is the technical term for saying, Hey, we’ve, we’ve, we found things that weren’t working as well and we’ve upgraded our code and now we think this app is gonna run more smoothly. Um, some of the, some of the frustrations that people have had, hopefully we’ve removed them, but people are asked to update their apps every week, every couple of weeks. At most. Those companies are always looking for bad variation, for things that aren’t yet working, things that aren’t working for some subgroups of people. One of the funniest ones I remember hearing about was that Siri for Apple knitted an update for Australian users because our accent was so hard to understand a lot of the time it wasn’t working very well. So I apologise on behalf of all the non-a Australians, uh, trying to listen in to my own accent. Maybe you’ve got that same challenge. My point here is that in most other sectors, no one expects to get things right the first time. It’s about getting into the work, analysing what’s working and not working, and being much more interested in engaging in praiseworthy failures than, as Michael Fullen says, being really interested in getting it right at the end and not necessarily trying to get affirmed with getting it all right at the beginning. Like these leaders I was working alongside. If you’re going after something that’s a persistent challenge, an ongoing problem, something that’s worthy of your innovation effort, it’s very likely we’re not gonna get it right the first time. And that’s just the way it’s meant to be.

So lean in and learn from the failures that are emerging at the moment in the early stages of your improvement work model, a culture of curiosity where we purposely get in and learn from places that are working, but also where it’s not working. And try to accelerate the learning loop where we move from identifying where things aren’t working, to harnessing out actionable insights. And then of course, taking the next iteration. Why don’t you and your team explore what it would look like to just commit to making better mistakes every term and building a cultural norm where it’s normal and in fact, it’s celebrated to talk often and openly about where people noticing people notice things that aren’t working as they plan, we bring those to the conversation, we learn from them, and we get moving faster as we actually learn from reality. Embrace those failures and take the next best move.


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