Learning to Learn from Failure

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Learning to Learn from Failure

Everyone hates to make mistakes. And yet, almost everyone would agree with the statement “mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities.” How can we resolve that paradox and learn to both make the right mistakes and to get the most out of the opportunities they present?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review1 addresses this increasingly popular subject. According to Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Robert E. Gunther, the principals in the consulting firm Decision Strategies International, failure is becoming all the rage in executive boardrooms.

How can failure be a good thing? The answer is that you have to make what experts call “intelligent mistakes.”

Consider this scenario: Congress ordered that 30 percent of all military ground vehicles be made robotic by 2015. The law didn’t say how that was to be accomplished, so the Pentagon threw the problem at DARPA, their forward-thinking research group, which tackles the most esoteric problems.

DARPA held a contest that it was certain would fail. In 2004, it offered $1 million to anyone who could pilot an unmanned vehicle across the California desert. As predicted, no one could do it. But that exercise forced entrants to develop and analyze 13 designs that could then be eliminated. This led to more intelligent thinking about other designs that might work. If those 13 had been developed with traditional engineering methods, the same exercise might have consumed years before anyone realized that they were dead ends.

The following year, DARPA upped the ante to $2 million and held the contest again. This time, five vehicles succeeded in crossing the desert and racing the full 132 miles. A team from Stanford University took the prize with a modified Volkswagen.

By deliberately — and carefully — making calculated mistakes, DARPA succeeded in two years, while traditional engineering efforts might have taken decades.

Research has demonstrated that executives who use a traditional, logical, systematic approach to solving problems find the solution much more slowly than people who are willing to fail with counter-intuitive methods.

On the other hand, everyone likes to be right. So how do you distinguish between intelligent mistakes and plain old blunders?

Schoemaker and Gunther recounted an experience in which they set out to make a mistake that they believed would lose them money but teach them valuable lessons. To their surprise, they made $1 million from their supposed blunder.

To do this, they turned fundamental assumptions on their heads...

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