Learning from failure ought to be easy. Good experiments should fail, about half the time, especially if they aren't costly. And agile experiments are designed to be low cost. But failure, it turns out, freaks us out, especially when we are new to a field. That might explain why agile transformations fail at a very high rate, even though the benefits of agile are well studied. Folks in an agile transformation are new to agile, and little failures at the beginning can lead them to run away.
In this episode, Dan Dickson and Dan Greening talk about a recently published paper, "You Think Failure is Hard? So is Learning from It." We discuss the insights in the paper, and how those insights translate into agile practice.
Here's the problem
And so, not only do we not learn from our own failures, our friends don't discuss their failures with us. So we don't learn from our own failures or our friends' failures. Bummer.
We talk about the implications for agile: it's a problem we have to address head on. We provide some ways to make learning from failure much easier.
Daniel Greening: The things that successful people do when they're starting, like before they become a success, they actually keep their failures relatively private or secret during the time that they're building skills. And then only when they've really become successful, do they feel comfortable discussing their failures.
Daniel Greening: Welcome to the Mindful Agility podcast. I'm Dan Greening.
Mindfulness skills produce deep insight. They help us see opportunities, dangers and interdependencies all around us, analyze the causes of what we see, and choose the things we can fix. Most of the time, it turns out the only thing we can fix is us.
Agile skills produce rapid innovation. Sometimes we need to experiment to find things that work and agile practices emphasize fast, effective experimentation. Neither of these skills are intuitive. So, whether you're agile, Mindful or both, you are practicing. Just like us.
Agile philosophy asks us to do our creative work with experiments and some of those experiments quote fail to validate their hypothesis unquote. Of course scientists and entrepreneurs experiment, but parents and people building a career, and just plain old humans experiment all the time. We don't often think of it that way, but each college application, each response to a job offer, each romantic encounter is an experiment.
If we thought of these things as experiments, our disappointment when things don't work out should be. "Cool. I experimented my hypothesis wasn't quite right. I learned something. What did I miss? What could I try next time?"
And that brings us to today's topic. The other day Mirela Petalli shared a great paper with the Mindful Agility team. It just came out in November of 2022. It's called, "you think failure is hard. So is learning from it." That paper is by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayalet Fishbach. It was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Dan Dickson and I read this paper and decided to have a conversation about it in our podcast.
Before we start, I want to highlight something called five whys. W H Y S. Dan Dickson and I mentioned it in our conversation and I thought I'd give you a heads up so, you know, roughly what it is. Five whys is a technique you can use to analyze problems. It works like this. When a kid is curious, they start with why. And then they keep asking. After about five times adults get tired, but kids want to keep going. Through that questioning, they've learned a lot.
I wrote a paper on how to use five whys in a team. I put a reference in our show notes. It's really powerful.
Let's start the episode.
Learning from Failure paper
Daniel Greening: So the great thing about this paper is that, first of all, it is harder for humans to learn from failure than to learn from success. That seems surprising to me because failures are often so dramatic and they reveal so much.
I learn a lot more from my failures than my successes. , but we, encountered some ideas and some research that seems to prove their point to some extent, and we may find some insight here that helps drive our future work.
Dan Dickson, what did you think overall of this paper
Dan Dickson: well, we both read it and we both had our own thoughts in terms of what the key points were. But there's one thing i think we both I Agree on And i'm going to read it word for word because i think it's important
The human species appears wired to avoid negative information about the self. People go to great lengths to avoid bad news, even when that news might contain something worth knowing. And that's really fascinating and they get into a lot of examples.
And I found myself thinking about my own experience and my own examples. One of the things that jumped to mind is they make the comment. Investors stop checking their finances when the stock market drops, which is the so-called ostrich effect. So that rather than confronting your failure and trying to learn from it, you try to bury it. And,I think that's really what the key is here, is that we're conditioned to celebrate success, but not to celebrate failure.
Daniel Greening: Yeah, that's interesting. And I wonder why,, like even evolutionarily, we have developed that behavior over time, so it must provide some value for us. Maybe because failure for, you know, our primitive selves would be that we would be eaten.
Dan Dickson: I've been puzzling over the same thing. I'm in the middle of a very fascinating book called. called Empire of the Summer Moon, which is about the Comanche tribe.
Let's say I'm a native American.
Daniel Greening: You're going native.
Dan Dickson: Indeed.
I want to go kill a Buffalo. I hit the Plains with my bow, and arrow and they find a Buffalo. I shoot it. And basically nothing happens. The arrow bounces off the Buffalo laughs to me, it runs away. So I go back to my tribe and I say, well, that didn't work. But we learned from that failure, we learned what didn't work. And eventually we figure out that we've got to a whole bunch of us together with spears. But that's counter to the point we're making, because you would think. That if we were to avoid learning from failure, we'd never figured that out.
So I'm thinking there also might be a social aspect of this. Let's use. use the same example I go out and try to bring a buffalo back but i show up empty handed. I'm afraid i'll be punished or alienated somehow from my society. So in that case i don't want to share the fact that i failed. I'm ashamed of my failure. So nobody hears about it. Nobody learns. And I'm wondering if maybe there's something in that conversation.
Daniel Greening: That's interesting to preserve your social standing.
Dan Dickson: So maybe we're looking at a different perspective of failure. Uh, depending on whether it's something that just I learn. Or whether it affects the broader group.
Let's go back to your example of failure, which is. Being eaten. That's a pretty practical situation. If I leave my shelter after dark and I run into a tiger.
One of two things is going to happen. Either I get eaten. In which case I failed. Or I make it back to my cave, in which case I succeeded. Regardless. If I survive, I've definitely learned something. And in this case is from direct experience. I'll likely share that experience as a society learns. And in this case, from my success.
But if I don't survive and I effectively fail. But there are other people in the cave they'll learn from my failure because I went out after dark and I didn't come back. In either case people learn that it's a bad idea to go out. After dark
in this case, I don't think that it's an issue of whether failure is frowned upon. But yeah, forgive I'm ranting
Daniel Greening: no, but you are ranting. I don't know if you're ranting, but it's relevant here.
People are Ashamed of Failure
Daniel Greening: And actually I did some research a couple or three years ago on goal theory and in that, work and also,Angela Duckworth's great book called Grit, reveals that many highly successful people have a string of failures.
The things that successful people do when they're starting, like before they become a success, they actually keep their failures relatively private or secret during the time that they're building skills. And then only when they've really become successful, do they feel comfortable discussing their failures.
So it's interesting, you and I have had lots of failure discussions as a part of this podcast, but you and I have been around for a while and we've had some successes. and we feel comfortable saying, Hey, this bad thing happened to me here, or this bad thing happened to me there. I haven't been able to talk about being fired before , and then lately it just seems to be something that's worth talking about.
But, but maybe that is this evolutionary idea that from a social standing point of view, we don't wanna seem to be that guy that got fired,back when I was 40, let's say. Does
Dan Dickson: I've gotten fired a couple of times. But it was a little bit later in my career. But it does make me think about my first gig after. For business school, which was at general electric company. I was the corporate than at one of the operating division. Visions. They were almost constant fears about layoffs.
Fortunately, I never got laid off, but I was definitely operating from a fear base because at that time, if you approached a recruiter or somebody like that, That the immediate question is why are you looking for a job? Oh, so you don't have a job. Well it's because I've been laid off and that would have been a huge black mark, regardless of circumstances.
So you do anything you could to avoid admitting that failure. Failure. But I think that's changed. I'm actually now of the opinion that being fired. It Isn't a bad thing at once was In fact i actually liked to hire people who've been fired It shows I've got some initiative or maybe took a risk i may have been a stupid risk but i'm betting the alert from it I mean you know, within reason this isn't always the case i mean if somebody got fired for stealing or something that wouldn't And apply
Daniel Greening: Right.
Dan Dickson: So I'm wondering if society is perception is changing on that kind of thing.
Daniel Greening: I don't know. Okay. so one of the things thatEskreis-Winker and Fishbaugh point out is that novices routinely avoid negative performance feedback. And this is related to our comments here. but even in the micro sense, as we're learning a skill, we're learning how to run, let's say, and we're running and we can run around the block.
We're probably not gonna tell people that we couldn't run twice around the block . But, as we get better and better, , we do seek out critique, right? Like we look to experts to say, Hey, what am I doing wrong? What could I be doing better? but only after we've obtained a certain level. I think that's what they're arguing.
Daniel Greening: Does that resonate with you?
Dan Dickson: Yeah, it does. And I'm thinking about another example I had. And my first board meeting after I joined the wine retailing company on the east coast. There were a lot of critical issues we had to discuss. But I knew that I did a great job on the presentation. I was confident in that. So at the end of the presentation, they said, okay, what could I have done better? And while i got some criticism i was completely comfortable with it because of the fact that I had a good good start if you will I was comfortable with what i had done i could look at the criticism of objectively And feel comfortable with it Whereas if i had showed up and empty handed well that may be a little extreme let's just try to wing the thing. And got criticized it might've been completely different That may or may not be a good example But i do think your your first point uh does make sense When you've established a certain level of success you can say how do i get better As opposed to how do i avoid failing i think those are two very different conversations
Daniel Greening: So we're talking a little bit about our inherit characteristics and how they inhibit our ability to learn from failure. One of the things these two researchers discovered was that people under learned from failure because when they fail, they stop paying attention.
I thought, "Wow, okay. So we failed and we, it's almost like we, we fail and we decide. I guess that skill is not for us to develop or something," but maybe we need to develop some other skill that will help our social group, right? So it might be the beginnings of specialization. if I become, if I try being a doctor and I'm afraid of blood and everything is like a mess, you might say maybe the rational thing to do is to just completely avoid that in the future and instead become a hunter, or a mechanic or something like that.
Does that make sense?
Dan Dickson: Well, it's the classic decision. Isn't it? If you don't succeed at first, there are two options. You either try. Try again, or you say the hell with it. I'm going to go do something else. I mean, these are two very different decisions. And I don't think there's an absolute right choice. I mean you Dr. Example's a good one.
It might seem conclusive because okay. If I can't stand the sight of blood, I'll never be a doctor. I'm going to have to go do something else. But then maybe I can get used to it. It's like people who can't stand being around spiders and they go through that exposure training and get used to it. So maybe I'm going to push myself. I'm going to make myself succeed.
But how do you make that decision to keep on trying as opposed to pursuing a different direction? I don't know the answer to that.
Daniel Greening: but at some point, trying and trying when you don't have even a minimum amount of inherent talent in that area might be a bad choice.
Dan Dickson: Maybe. And I don't disagree, but I'm still not sure how you make that decision. Here's an example. You've. Got a friend who's five foot eight and he wants to be an NBA star. The first reaction That's a stupid idea But then there was bob cousy who was with the celtics i know it was a while ago but he Was five foot eight and he was a star
I guess the question is how do you make that decision? that goes to five whys right? Or other forms of analysis to actually take a step back and say, why did I fail? like maybe I'm afraid of blood, so what caused this, and is it something I can really overcome or is it something that's so ingrained that I should just throw in the towel now and become a mechanic.
That, that's a good, that, that's a good way of looking at it.
Reasons People are Afraid to Discuss Failure - It Starts Early
Daniel Greening: yeah. Interesting. so then they talked a little bit about learned helplessness. And this is a situation you have when people try different things and each thing fails and ultimately they conclude that they themselves are a loser.
And,and therefore they shouldn't even bother. and that comes early, that learned helplessness is often something that is reinforced in childhood, right? If you have super critical parents who are constantly telling you you're failing. You ultimately have no real hope in a way, and then you can see how that learned helplessness would carry through to your adult life and cause all sorts of problems.
Dan Dickson: Yeah. There's two ways to look at that. Iyou talk about demanding parents. I said earlier on another episode that I had a very demanding father. he didn't make me feel like a complete knit with, but for example, is that when my sister and I would bring home our report cards, and that's back in the day when they were paper and your parents had to sign them and all this kind of stuff.
Whenever you got 'em, every six weeks, we got a quarter for an a. And nothing else for anything else. So it was almost like, yeah, unless you get an A, you're, it's implied you're a failure. and that again, led to, another tendency, which I had mentioned before, is that if you're not completely confident in success, you're not gonna try something.
And that, took me a long time to get over. and it was both intellectual and emotional, conversation.
Daniel Greening: yeah. That's interesting. You wouldn't even wanna experiment., if you're legitimately experimenting, a failure should be a significant possibility, otherwise you're not gonna learn anything.
Who Are the People Who Learn Most From Failure, and How Can We Teach Other People to React the Same Way?
okay. So one interesting conclusion that these guys draw is that failure undermines commitment and motivation for non-experts, but it can have the opposite effect on experts. So in a way, we've talked about successful people who are completely comfortable talking about their previous failures and maybe even their existing failures.
Daniel Greening: we're talking about challenges that we're facing today and we're kind of reveling in it. we're thinking about it and saying, how did this work? what could we have done differently about the podcast? Or where should we go with the podcast? And we're thinking about that, openly. And perhaps that's because we're becoming more expert at our skill. Do you think that's true?
Dan Dickson: I need to think about it. I guess the thing with the podcast, in my own situation, it wasn't, I didn't, I never approached it as it, oh, this has gotta succeed. I almost approach it from the beginning as an experiment
Daniel Greening: That's right. and what I was going to, but might benefit. we've talked about, how we can, maybe monetize this somehow, but my real benefit was to learn and learn about, learn more about agile, which I've certainly done learn more about, Mindful Agility, which I've certainly done.
Dan Dickson: And so the uptake on the podcast to me is almost like a dividend. It's,it's not as, it is not the key motivator for me. I'm not saying it's not important, but by the same token is that I'm getting corollary benefits, as we look I see that. I see that. And that's interesting because it could lead to a strategy for learning from failure, right. We definitely track the number of downloads we get, we track how many people write reviews and that sort of thing, as all podcasters do. And we put it in this framework. But we're always talking about how the purpose of this is to learn, for us to learn and for us to help other people.
Daniel Greening: And so to some extent it's apparent that we help other people because we have this podcast and occasionally we have people that we're helping on the podcast . But that strategy of switching our attention from something potentially unachievable, we're never gonna have as many listeners as Joe Rogan, for example, who's
Dan Dickson: We don't know that.
Daniel Greening: We don't know that. We don't know that. But if that were our goal, that's a,daunting goal that could lead to repeated failures and a sense of learned helplessness. But instead, we're thinking this is a vehicle for us to learn. And that is definitely happening. So even in our discussion of this paper, it's motivating us to read more, to understand more, to understand failure and so forth.
And the outcome is for me, good. Okay. Okay. I don't know. That was a long conversation about one little quote,
Dan Dickson: Yeah. But it's, it was a good conversation.
It's Easier to Learn from Someone's Else's Failure Than Your Own
Dan Dickson: I was gonna say, we're looking, cuz the next session is, the section is something that I found very intriguing is that how can you remove the emotional impediments that you have from about for learning from failure?
And one of the easiest ways to do it is to take yourself out of the equation and learn it from somebody else. And I think about what I think about our series of podcasts on Ron Johnson and JC Penney, I am seeing his failures. I am applying that to a current situation I am in and if I had been him and gone through this, I'm just wondering if I could look at this as objectively and clinically as we can by looking at somebody else's experience
and somebody else's failure.
That's interesting. So we're learning from other people's failures. We haven't really, in a sense, we've overcome, we've not overcome the emotional barrier. We've bypassed it like we, we skipped it because we ourselves didn't fail. We're looking at other people's failures and we're learning from theirs.
but still, it's great. And actually it perhaps provides a little bit of practice, because when we do that, when we analyze, let's say Ron Johnson's failures, we almost inherently put ourselves in his shoes. If we really wanna analyze that failure, we go what if I were Ron Johnson would I do that because of my past history.
Daniel Greening: And from the mindfulness perspective, we usually say yes. if we were Ron Johnson, we would've had all the causes and conditions that led up to Ron Johnson being Ron Johnson. And inevitably we would've done what he did, so we can feel some compassion for him.
We can feel, yeah, I can totally see how that would happen. But now that we can, we actually can think about all the causes and we can create this sort of,five whys analysis around how Ron Johnson got there. And then we could think if we were in that same situation. Where would we have woken up for a second and said, "Hey, you know what? I need to do something different here." I l So in a sense,learning from other people's failures is bypassing the issue, but it's also getting us really close to being comfortable with our own failures, being able to analyze them. I think that, do you think that's true?
it's almost that one of the things that, again, the article says is that one of the techniques, if I'm not mistaken, is the idea of, I mean they, they call it cognitive distancing techniques, if I'm not mistaken, is that you are effectively saying, okay, instead of I failed, Dan failed instead of try to look at yourself in the third person and separate that one.
the, again, I'm I need to try that. and see, I, again, I've thought about it. I haven't really delved into a detail taking one of my past failures and seeing if. I look at myself in that third person sense if I can, see things I didn't see otherwise or look at it maybe a little bit more closely.
Dan Dickson: I dunno.
yeah. We're coming up with bullet point action plans for our audience. So learning from someone else's failures, cognitive distancing that helps alleviate the anxiety that accompanies failure analysis that we want to run away from an issue.
Daniel Greening: But the other thing they suggest is shoring up our ego.
In other words, getting to the point where we are comfortable with discussing our own failures. So they have a bunch of examples there where they suggested that people somehow use their own failures, as an opportunity to advise others. So in other words, to, as we have done, talk about our own failures and use this as an example of how to interpret that and how to overcome the issues that we ultimately did overcome.
So that gets us comfortable with failure, is are you feeling that way from our discussion?
Dan Dickson: I think this is a segue into how we can be comfortable discussing our failures. If it's in the context of advising others. That's really what mentoring and coaching is all about. And in the article, the illustrate this with their example of how high school students who gave advice to younger students.
Earn higher grades and control students who didn't. In other words, if an older, a high school student, an older student, mentored a younger student, they actually did better. And I think there's two things going on there. Number one is that, and again, I found myself in the same situation of I'm, coaching a company or an individual is that I am feel very comfortable sharing my failures because you're using it to teach somebody and help them not make the same mistake, if you will.
And, the other thing too is it's, I found it's always harder to teach somebody how to do something than just to do it. and so you've gotta have a better grasp of that. And there may be some of that woven in here because by. Having that better understanding to be able to teach somebody something about failure means you have to understand it more thoroughly for it to make sense.
Does that make sense?
Make Sure Goals are Achievable
Daniel Greening: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things these guys did not talk about, but I swear I've read it somewhere, is that we learn more when the challenges we're facing are perhaps unachievable, but just barely unachievable. I guess this is a part of goal theory. In many papers back in the two thousands, goal theory showed that when our goal is unreachable or very difficult to reach. We are less motivated to approach those goals. But when our goals are just barely reachable or just barely unreachable, we will strive harder than if they were easier or if they were harder. so knowing our existing skill level and tuning our challenge to that skill level will improve the results that we see. And I think that's partly because we're going to see some success, right? At that challenge level, we're going to have successes or near successes. And that's going to motivate us to continue. But if we have abject failure after abject failure, We're going to get to that learned helplessness state. And so another way to shore up the ego is to make sure there's some successes that are possible.
Does that make sense?
Dan Dickson: that, that's a good point. I was thinking while you were talking is that, and it's the classic, how do you set a sales goal for somebody? that's a very granular way of looking at this. And, I learned this when I was, back at General Electric. it's, if you put like a, this aspirational impossible sales goal up there, nobody's even bothered to try because they know they can't do it.
I think that the best way to approach this may be some sort of an amalgam. You begin with a goal that's aggressive, but attainable. Then you set a stretch goal on top of it. You effectively set increments. And so the overall thought is you take a success and say, "okay, I got this far, then maybe I can make this incremental improvement to that." And that presentation can actually be more palatable, than if you just took the original goal plus a stretch goal and put it in front of somebody.
so that you reward incremental performance on this whole thing. The personal situation is that, effectively incrementally shore up your ego. Is that, okay, I've made it this far, I've made it this incremental step and let's see what I can do next.
Another analogy we were talking about, people trying to get into acting and I used my, example of running the company in Santa Monica with a bunch of aspiring actors working for me cuz they were smart and they were
they're looking for something to do and I could manage the company so that people coming in and out was okay.
Dan Dickson: And the guy that came in really excited because he had gotten a bit part on a,a broom or a mop commercial, and that was his incremental. And he was back in a few weeks cuz he'd did that. But then he got another stent. So the overall thought about how do you stage it so you can have incremental successes that you can build on.
As opposed to somebody who comes to Hollywood saying, well, I'm going to be an A-list performer in a blockbuster movie. You can't start there, you've got to get there incrementally
Daniel Greening: Right, right, okay, so the shoring up the ego, this idea that we can withstand our own project failures, also includes this idea of reminding ourselves of our proven ability, commitment, or expertise. so I think about that all the time. maybe because I am persistent as hell, and it's inherent, I think, in the way I work rather than something I have honed , When we talk, we're reminding ourselves always that we're experimenting and that we've done these experiments repeatedly.
And look at, the downloads that we have now, they're more than we expected to have at this point. they're still, humble. but nevertheless, we have gotten further. , and reminding ourselves of that when we fail is a way to keep going.
I guess there are some examples of that, because there have been sprint's which are these one week periods in our podcasting team, where we didn't get anything done that we plan to do. That is called velocity zero in agile lingo. So, that happened and we were consciously careful not to feel bad about it. Not to have regrets. But rather to look at those situations and think about what caused those situations. One of the things we discovered, since all four of us travel frequently. God knows why. We travel frequently. And when we make a change in our location, that seems to mess things up a bit. So now we're aware of that because we looked closely at how come our velocity was zero. And then re casting failure as an opportunity to learn. So obviously we're doing that heavily right now because we're studying failure and we are recounting our experiences with failure and what we did differently as a result. But it does take some kind of distance, I guess.
So when we talked about Matt's failure to move to Dublin, Ireland, I think it took him a while to really recast that failure as a learning experience. Do you think that's true?
Oh yeah. And I think that's one of the points that we made is that, give yourself some time to suffer, to have some grief about it. Yeah.
Dan Dickson: Don't kill yourself. By the same token, hey, accept the fact you're gonna feel crummy for a while. And,it sucks when something like that happens.
, when you have that emotional situation, it is hard to basically be objective and learn things from it.
Daniel Greening: Kind of the question from an agile point of view is how to do that faster, right? so what if Matt had wanted to accelerate that process? I guess the first thing was his goal was to become happier. That was the sort of hidden goal. It wasn't to move to Ireland, it was because his current situation, which he felt was miserable, would all be solved if he would move overseas, where Europeans are so much, whatever they are , whatever delusion we have about people in Europe.
Dan Dickson: But, it didn't work out he could have gone back to his bigger goal, his happiness goal, and made deliberate decisions about exploring that, about experimenting with it, but probably didn't for a while. Yeah,
Daniel Greening: I guess we should talk to him about that.
Dan Dickson: Well, yeah. The problem that Matt shares with was that people would come and say, oh, don't worry about it it's not that bad you had a crummy boss and all this sort of thing. He may have felt a little better and started rationalizing but that might not be a good thing. I maintain it from a common sense fundamental standpoint You will learn more from failure than from success.
Let's use the Buffalo example. Let's say I went out there the first day and I shot a buffalo with my bow and arrow. I got lucky and hit it in the eye and killed it. Okay? I didn't learn anything because the next time I'm gonna go out there and fail. Whereas when you failed you, you learned that this doesn't work, I've gotta try something else. As opposed to a success is that you say, okay, this worked and therefore I don't need to learn anything. . I understand what you're saying, but these guys, they argue that the way we approach failure means that we learn less from failure than success, right?
Daniel Greening: Because they ran these experiments, right? and the cost of failure was nothing.
They ran a game where they would either succeed or fail and you would learn the same information from failure as you would from success, or you would if you were logical. The fact that you failed meant that you could predict the next time how to succeed. But the problem was that when faced with this game that people were playing, when they failed, they didn't learn what they needed to learn to succeed.
Daniel Greening: And it was all apparently due to this emotional barrier, cognitive barrier issue. So when you say you, you learn more from failure, you could
Dan Dickson: you could , and that's exactly right. from a logic standpoint. okay, so great. And I guess the last thing that they suggest in terms of showing up the ego is re casting failure as an opportunity to learn. We've talked about that in our podcast episodes and we do it all the time ourselves. I think it's an inherent thing that needs to accompany agile practices, right?
Daniel Greening: Because we are experimenting. And I've noticed that when you do a retrospective, you're basically setting up an experiment for the next sprint, the next one week or two week period. And and I've noticed in those retrospectives that people set up an experiment and then they do it, basically, and then the next week you're supposed to ,come back to that experiment, look in the retrospective and say, " did we validate our hypothesis? Did we actually do more or better quality," or something like that Because of some process change we made,
what I've noticed is that people, when we fail, people don't ask that question as much. Isn't that funny? we should pay attention to that. I haven't even thought about it until just now, but I'm realizing when I think back about, retrospectives, I can remember vividly when we have tried something new, like for our little agile group. One of the things that we tried that was new was when we put a backlog item in our backlog and we scheduled a meeting or two to take care of that particular issue. We got more done. and we've seen this pattern regularly and I can always remember that is a thing that works, but what I don't remember is the failures as much.
I don't think about it. I'm not even sure I can remember right now. Any of them? Do you remember any failures from our retrospectives?
Dan Dickson: Not in that context, no.
It's interesting, right? So maybe we're proving our point or their point. so those were emotional barriers. where we associate our value as a person with the outcome of, an activity.
Daniel Greening: But there are also cognitive failures, that we overlook, contradictory or unexpected information, sort of cognitive bias issues. They don't start out expecting to fail. And you can almost see how you could combat that by saying, "this is an experiment. And we want to have some chance of failure before you even start, right?"
Dan Dickson: Yeah, but there's a difference there because admitting the fact that. Okay i'm going to try this and it may not work is different than flat out, expecting to fail. It's two different mindsets If you were expecting to fail why even bother But if there's a possibility that you'll fail and you accept that it makes sense to try I guess there's a fine line because you could sit there and say well i don't think this is going to work but i'm going to try it anyway But in that case you're still giving yourself a chance of success .
So the question is how binary do you want to make this thinking?
Daniel Greening: Yeah. Yeah. And we might be overloading this sentence. people almost never expect to fail. you're almost saying people almost never assume they are going to fail.
Dan Dickson: it's a little bit different than that. It's if there's something, I know, like for example, if I say, okay, I'm gonna go out and pick up my car, throw it across the street, there's a 100% chance that is not gonna happen.
Daniel Greening: that's
Dan Dickson: And there are very few situations like that, I think, where, I'm not gonna go out, try to throw my car across the street, so II may be taking this a little bit too literal.
Daniel Greening: I do think though, when we explicitly talk about some chance of failure and when we pick a goal, that is challenging enough that the likelihood of failure is not zero. and, if it's closer to half, 50% likely that we'll fail and we understand our skill level. We're setting up expectations that we might fail. And that's a good thing, right? Like we're explicitly targeting that type of failure rate. So we'vereduced that cognitive failure perhaps. I don't know if these authors would agree with that. We might want to invite one of them to come chat with us on our podcast.
Dan Dickson: an interesting
Daniel Greening: thought.so these guys also argue that learning from failure is less direct than learning from success.
Dan Dickson: Based on the conversation we've had it's almost counterintuitive.
Daniel Greening: Yeah, I think, this would be an area where we could critique the paper. I remember reading it and going, okay, but it's the way you're defining it more than anything. people need to deduce what an incorrect response teaches about the correct response. so one of the ideas that they present in this paper is that, If you encourage people to look at failure and try to create a logical conclusion from it, it helps them learn from failure. I, it's almost obviously, you know what I'm saying?
How to Understand Failure
that's, I guess one of the way that I read this is that, okay, you have to understand why, what the reason was that you failed.
Daniel Greening: yeah, you have to do your five whys
Dan Dickson: Yeah, exactly. And that's fine. And that does make sense.
Daniel Greening: Okay. so their suggestion about how to overcome cognitive failures as "highlight the information value of failure," they basically showed through studies that when they told participants that there was information value in failure, and that by shying away from looking at the failure, they weren't going to learn that, people actually tried to learn from it and they got better results.
So just pointing that out to people seems to work. So we just have to remind ourselves that failures are useful to look at.
Dan Dickson: Yeah. it's not necessarily failure's a good thing, but failure's a useful thing.
Daniel Greening: yeah. the issue with failure is there's the learning value of failure, but then there's the cost of failure too. Often when we're working on, a project, the failure could have a cost, either a reputational cost that people look at us more as a failing person, or an actual cost.
Either we spent time on something that we could have spent on something else, or we actually spent money on something that we could have spent on something else. The problem is those two things get conflated, right? the learning process, is now associated with the cost and sometimes the cost is really big.
So we don't wanna be reminded about all of our. Costly,adventures
Dan Dickson: put another way. You've got a cost. You've got a benefit. The benefit is learning in a successful experiment. The cost of learning outweighs the cost of failure. In other words if by failing i'm going to still learn. learn something and that's going to be worth the cost i incur.
Again let's get back to JC Penney i'm not sure they were anything other than the fact that ron johnson's reinvention didn't work In that case and since they rolled out the concept nationwide didn't experiment, The cost far outweigh the potential learning in case of a failure No, they just taken a single market and experimented and again it failed the learning would have weighed the cost And they might've learned enough to actually make the concept work
Daniel Greening: But once you actually fail, even if the failure is outrageous, like the, JC Penney failure or the enjoy.com failure, each of those was about a billion dollars worth of failure, right? So huge. Nevertheless, there is a gem of learning there. And if the cost of the failure is so overwhelming, you can't even think about it, you just wanna look away, it's like a sunk cost bias, like you, you just don't wanna look at it. But nevertheless, that failure has value, right? that has learning value. of course it was at a very high cost, but if you don't learn from it, you've paid the cost and gotten nothing back, right?
Interesting challenge here.
I don't understand this quote. "people may be able to extract information from failure in the social realm,"
Dan Dickson: The way that I would interpret that we need look back on the third person , I can learn from somebody else's failure better than I can learn from my own.
There's Value in Sharing Failure
Daniel Greening: These guys summarize this, you pointed out this great quote. The information in failure is a public good. When it is shared, society benefits, yet failures are largely undershared, probably due to the reputational cost.
Dan Dickson: Mm-hmm.
Daniel Greening: So the unfortunate implication is that the information in failed actions failed to transfer to the group.
Dan Dickson: Yep.
Daniel Greening: Yeah. So we're afraid of talking about failure and because of that, our friends are succeeding less than they could be.
Dan Dickson: Yeah, again, I'm gonna go back to my,shooting the buffalo as I go out and I as my bow and arrow. I shoot the buffalo, I'm a failure. I come back, I don't tell anybody. Then, the guy sitting next to me is gonna do the same thing. So there's no opportunity if I'm ashamed of my failure and I don't share it.
It's, basically a detriment to the overall society.
Daniel Greening: Hmm. Hmm. and lastly, "in sum, when people avoid negative communications and more broadly, the information in failure, they miss out on a lot. First, there's a general loss to social knowledge because failures are hidden from the group. Second, there is a loss in not just the quantity of available information, but its quality.
So in other words, if we get this flood of success story stuff, how many books are written by CEOs who claim to be super successful, when they just happen to get lucky, the quality of that information is questionable. I think they're arguing that because we're shying from talking about failure, we're robbing society of potential improvements,
Dan Dickson: Yeah, I.
Daniel Greening: So we've talked about big obvious failures, like CEO Ron Johnson from JC Penney who drove it into the ground. We talked about him in episodes 11, 12, and 13. A lot of information there.
That analysis was useful to the world and Ron Johnson's not going to be the guy that shared that information with others.
Dan Dickson: If we were in his shoes with his knowledge and background, we likely would've done exactly the same thing. However, now and given the benefit of an agile perspective. We hopefully would have done it in a more controlled manner. Our intent is not to beat up in a Ron Johnson In fact i thank him because we're having the opportunity to learn from his mistake at jc penney And i'm actually in a situation where i may be able to apply that specific learning to another situation.
Daniel Greening: okay, so if you're interested in reading this paper, it's called "You Think Failure is Hard, so is learning from it." It's in Perspectives on Psychological Science. It came out November 2022 by Eskries-Winkler and Fishbach. Thanks for joining us on this podcast. We hope you have a great time, Sayonara.
Daniel Greening: Many, thanks to Dan Dickson for joining me on this episode. References and other useful data are in the show notes. We write about all sorts of Mindful Agility topics independently of the podcast. Sign up to the newsletter at mindfulagility.com. We also notify people of new episodes in that newsletter.
You can look for blog posts at mindfulagility.com/posts. If you're interested in working with a group, trying to apply these concepts to their own lives. Consider joining us in our Facebook group called Mindful Agility community, which meets every couple of weeks.
We have a sister podcast called Mindful Agility Meditations. It's available wherever you listen to podcasts. We're discovering that a lot of people like it. You might too.
Many thanks to our beta reviewers. Beta reviewers get early access and provide feedback, helping us identify problems and opportunities. They're a key part of our production staff. So here's a shout out.
Starlette Ruff wanted more enthusiasm and specific guidance in difficult life situations.
Jeff Stuit gave us great pointers on audio dropouts and thought the original paper needed more evidence for its claims.
Yi Wen reminded us that we should briefly describe agile and mindfulness at the beginning of each episode.
Linda M Cook suggested a lot of great edits from the perspective of an agile coach.
Amelia Hambrecht suggested we talk about goal theory in a future episode.
Eric Squires was a huge cheerleader. Everybody needs somebody like that.
Divya Maez wanted us to talk a little bit more about the emotional factors. A lot of emotions come with failure. We need to think about that.
Doug Donzelli gave us at least three other episode ideas ranging from cognitive behavior therapy, to sales goals, to interviewing venture capitalists to understand failure.
All our reviewers motivated changes to this episode and we are super grateful. Thanks.
Daniel Greening: So the last thing we like to do is give you something to try at home.
Think about some failures that you've had. And think about how long it took you to really recover from that failure. The longer it took you, the less agile you can be. How might you change your relationship to failure, so that time is as short as possible. Good luck with that. I'm Dan Greening. See you next time.