Failure – likely and visible #WILTW

This is the 139th #WILTW

I chanced upon an old article on the relationship of learning and performance and how it appears to improve the former you often see transient decreases in the latter. The authors describe:

  1. The visibility problem: Collecting the data to demonstrate improvement before-and-after an intervention often shows you are currently performing far worse than you thought or reveals problems you hadn’t previously looked for.
  2. The worse-before-better problem: Learning to do new things results in performance deficits. The example given was that of touch-typing: there is a period where you are actually slower in creating a manuscript as you transition between single and multiple finger keyboard use.

Singer and Edmondson 2006 When Learning & Performance are at Odds: Confronting the Tension

A logical consequence of this relationship is that failure becomes a not uncommon event when something is initially implemented (or at least if the evaluation takes place at the nadir of the learning curve).

What really struck me is their observation that failure is not only more common than success, it is also more visible.

This visibility becomes increasingly more overt the bigger the scale of the intervention. This in some ways is inherently obvious but it really isn’t acknowledged enough. Failure is often taken as a set back, or even worse, covered up with an over-glamorisation of positive results at the expense of any real learning.

At times when system pressures are critical the ability to develop new ways of working is vital. However it becomes potentially even more likely that the innovation or improvement will come only after there have been multiple public failures. Given the challenges the organisation is facing this may be even less well received.

At times like this it is important boards, directors, clinical leads and individuals are brave and pragmatic with their interpretation of new strategies and projects.

What have you learnt this week? #WILTW

You can now follow WILTW on Facebook by liking this page . Browse previous posts here or insert your e-mail address in the box on the right hand side to receive future posts. 

Leave a Reply

  1. Even though it’s worth considering the limitations of the definition of ‘failure’ and its negative connotations. Highlighted as ‘opportunities for process- system improvement’ may take away any personal emotion or blame towards the teams. After all everyone is doing their best and it’s more often poor process standards and systems that fail us (or I should say, present us with opportunities to improve)

  2. Brilliant point.

    Yes, very loose language on my part with ‘failure’ – it was the original authors choice of words but I agree a different word and connotation creates a very different mindset and learning opportunity.