Failure as a Learning Tool: 0/10

This week we are delighted to have a guest post from Fiona Quigley (@FionaQuigs).

Thomas Edison, famously said:

“I have not failed 1,000 times.  I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

Abraham Lincoln, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and JK Rowling, to name but a few, are as famous for their failures as their successes.

If you talk to successful people, most will tell you that they “failed” many times.  History is laden with spectacular failures, stories of triumph over adversity and succeeding against the odds.  Human nature draws us to these stories.  Seeing others’ vulnerabilities and the hurdles they have overcome somehow helps to inspire us.

But what of the 21st century education and business environment – does failure still play an important role in our learning?  Does our perception of failure and its value need a re-think?  If failure is such an important part of achieving success, how can we use it better to learn?

One of the challenges with using failure as a learning tool is the meritocracy that we live in;  we are judged on our individual achievements.  From an early age, we are taught that grades matter.  Being top of the class, getting into the best schools and graduating with honours drives how we learn through the formal school system.

A recent French research study discovered that, by telling 11-year-olds that the puzzles they were working on were difficult and that they needed to practise, this improved their success rate.  The intervention of telling the students that learning is difficult, mistakes are common and practice is important, was found to improve their working memory.

Harold Jarche, in a blog entitled “Three Principles for Net Work”, speaks of the changing nature of work and our increasingly complex business environment.  Harold states that, due to the complex nature of business, “failure needs to be tolerated”.  Harold’s tagline for his blog “Life in perpetual Beta” makes a lot of sense.

The changing nature of business is also reflected in organisational structure changes.  Over the last few years, many organisations have adopted a matrix or network organisation structure, where ambiguous roles and uncertainty is part of everyday life.  In these types of environments, people may have two or more managers; work in physical teams and virtual teams and often have to redefine their roles on an on-going basis.

The skills of the 21st century worker are about negotiation, influence, collaboration and, often, compromise.  We don’t live in the black and white world that many of us were educated in as school children.

The idea of looking at failures and learning from them is worth exploring.  Conferences such as TED ( and TheFailCon ( encourage people to be open and honest about their ideas, struggles and successes.  Shinning light on failure actually changes it into a feedback process.

It is also worth looking at the definition of failure.  We all make mistakes, but when does making a mistake result in failure?  Is it when we make the same mistake over and over without learning from it?

Human psychology is complex and there are many reasons why we might repeat a pattern of behaviour that is less than positive.  Paradoxically, perfectionism is a trait that can lead to a fear of failure which, in turn, can result in poor performance.  People can get so stressed by the thought of getting it wrong, that they may never start, procrastinate, or do the task half-heartedly because they “know” they will get it wrong.

Failure is tied up with judgement.  When you call yourself a failure, you are essentially judging yourself.  The word failure closes down thinking and leaves little room for overcoming problems and learning from them.  If you add our increasingly complex and ambiguous business environment to the mix, then perhaps the world we operate in may not be as ready to tolerate and benefit from failure as much as we need.

So it seems that our ability to learn can be significantly impacted by both our attitude to success and failure.  How can we embrace failure and integrate it into our learning processes?

To read more about failure as a learning tool:

Reducing Academic Pressure May Help Children to Succeed

Strategies for Learning From Failure – Harvard Business Review

Interpreting Successes and Failures: The Influence of Perfectionism on Perspective

Harold Jarche – Three Principles for Net Work Blog

Festival of Errors

Famous Failures

Fiona is a Freelance Instructional Designer and Trainer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland who has been working in the learning and development area for 15 years.  You can contact Fiona via her blog  or through following her on Twitter @FionaQuigs where she is an active contributor.

Lost in Translation: Working with SMEs

I think we’ve all experienced some difficulty in getting the information and support we need from subject matter experts – it comes with the territory in the learning industry. Our guest blogger this week, Kevin Thorn (@LearnNuggets), has shared 3 useful tips when working with SMEs to help you get to your ultimate goal: effective learning interventions.

Kevin’s Guest Blog Post:

All the layers in designing and developing elearning can be quite overwhelming at times. In those times that deadlines loom and stakeholders demanding faster speed to market, it’s common to skip a few steps. Sometimes an executive will say, “we need some elearning…” which pretty much rules out any needs analysis. Any analysis that you try to do will just be overruled so it’s common to bypass this ‘layer.’ Often I see linear click-n-read courses that could have been a much better learning experience if designed as a scenario, some branching choices, or even a story. Again, it’s usually due to lack of time to really design out the instruction that could and should be more meaningful.
So, knowing what you “want” to do while at the same time knowing your own reality, how to you stay efficient and produce great courses even though some steps may have to be overlooked? Answer: Storyboards. Storyboarding your course will help you see all the things that may potentially be bottlenecks or obstacles in the development phase. You already know that. But what about the email you just got from the primary SME with an attachment they are calling a ‘storyboard’ yet when you open it you can’t decipher it? The language is off, the instructional flow is non-existent, the suggested interactions are just eye candy with no meaning, and 60 minutes later, when the learner is supposed to take a quiz, they can’t remember enough of the content to answer 10 simple memory-dump T/F questions.

Here are 3 tips that I find useful:

1. Go barefoot

Going barefoot frees up the spirit don’t you think?! Your feet are free to breathe and to feel the texture of the surface beneath them. Seriously, going barefoot has zero to do with deciphering SME content into a usable storyboards. Yet, I use this analogy as a way to remind me to let go. Early on I tried to massage, twist, stretch, tweak, and do everything I could to get the SME’s content into a flow that would be instructionally better and an easier storyboard for me to develop from. Each time I would dread this step. I’d rather wear wool socks in the South during July!
First, study their content hard, far, and wide. Learn every bit of what their intent is for the course. Remember, you may not have had an opportunity to do a full needs analysis and this may be all that you get to work from. Next, start chunking it out into relevant sections. No order yet, just pull out the meaningful pieces which may be one screen in the end or multiple screens – don’t worry about that right now. Once you get the content pulled out into chunks; re-organize them. You may find they fit logically the way they are or you may find (more often than not) that an adjustment here and there makes a world of difference. Finally, sharpen your pencil and write a sound instructional design using the rearranged content. And don’t forget to wash your feet before you go to bed!

2. SME speak – the forgotten language.

Just this year, I’ve worked on projects that SMEs have called or named each screen a Cell, Slide, Stage, or Screen. Additionally, Quizzes, Tests, or Knowledge Checks may all refer to the same thing. A tip here is not to teach a SME your language, learn theirs. They don’t care about your lingo and industry jargon. Besides, they are most likely communicating within their department or organization using their standard language. You trying to insert elearning buzz words just deters the focus.
If they call it a Cell instead of a Slide, let them. However, have a clear definition as to what each term means. If they refer to a button being Selected when they mean Click, let them. If a mouseover of an image reveals a tip and they call it a Hover-Comment, let them. If they want to call a Menu a Table of Contents or a Topics List, then let them. The point here is the semantics of the choice of terminology has zero bearing on the end learner. Your task is to decipher the content and turn it into a meaningful experience for the learner, even if that means you learn a new language along the way.

3. Undoing the animated lecture

Ever read this in SME-provided content?

“Have a background image of [this] for two seconds and then start the audio narration. Then fade out that background and fade in [this] background. When the narrator says, ‘this, this, and this,’ show onscreen text in bullet form. While the narrator says each bullet, layer in a supporting image on top of the background image. After the narrator says [that], fade out everything and then show the 5:29 video. Make sure users can’t skip ahead in the video, but once it ends, auto advance to the next screen.”

What just happened there?
Or, have you ever read something like this in SME-provided content?

“When the narrator says, ‘You need to click on each of the thumbnail images to learn more,’ fade out everything on the screen and have [these] 9 thumbnail images. When the user clicks a thumbnail, show [this] paragraph. Make sure the user can only click on one at a time, and don’t let them advance until they click on all of them.”

Those two examples are what I like to call ‘I Wannabe an ID SME.’ With all honest intentions, sometimes SMEs want to play a role in the instructional design process. I think that’s great! Especially if it’s a SME you work with regularly, it helps build the relationship. But… they are a SME because of the years of experience they have in their respective field. You, on the other hand are just as much a SME at what you do. You know the difference, but often they don’t.
How do you delicately and respectfully help a SME refocus their efforts on meaningful content and let you focus on the instructional design? I don’t know the secret sauce just yet and inevitably there will be some friction.
The point is to avoid the friction. Of the two above examples there is a script, some on-screen text suggested, a video, a suggested click-n-reveal interaction with some additional content, and a controlled navigational path. How that instructionally all fits together is your job. Reassure the SME that you will work hard to ensure their content is presented in a way that the learner can absorb it in a logical way without insulting them on their attempt to help map it for you.

In closing:

Will you ever get clean, well-mapped out content from a SME? Probably not. Will you get more content than the learner needs in the context of the performance outcomes? Probably. Remember, SMEs have just as much passion for sharing their knowledge as you do helping them communicate it. Developing a good relationship, learning their language, and reassuring them you will take care of their content as if it were your own child will help smooth the development phases.
Now be careful out there! Keep your feet clean, learn a new language, and avoid friction.

Kevin Thorn
Chief NuggetHead
NuggetHead Studioz
Twitter: @LearnNuggets
B: &

Somehow, we need to balance the strategic need for SMEs to provide content and context, and our struggle to get the day-to-day work done translating that content & context into effective training or performance support. How do we make sure to provide value as a learning professional, especially when there is such a push for SMEs to create training themselves? How do you do it?

Please join us for Lost in Translation #chat2lrn Thursday, May 10 at 4pm BST/11am EDT/8am PDT

For more about working with SMEs, please see the following very helpful posts – some of which are from our own crew & regular #chat3lrn participants, thanks tweeps!

Hope to “see” you Thursday!


Reference Posts:

Beginning Instructional Authoring: Getting the Content You Need from SMEs, Part 1
By Patti Shank March 15, 2012

Beginning Instructional Authoring: Getting Good Scenario Content from SMEs
By Patti Shank April 12, 2012

Working with Subject Matter Experts (SME)
March 30, 2012 by Fiona Quigley

How To Brain Sync With A Subject Matter Expert
Connie Malamed

Nuts and Bolts: Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
By Jane Bozarth March 1, 2011

What Everyone Should Know About Working with Subject Matter Experts
Tom Kuhlman

Learning Socially Taps Into More Knowledge   – Tom Spiglanin

A Real Ratio To Pay Attention To: 70:30 – Guy W Wallace