I have a very geeky 9 year old daughter; there really is no doubt about that. One day last spring, a school friend had transgressed in some way in the class and her “punishment” was to stay inside at recess and clean out the pencil sharpener. My daughter offered to give up her recess and help her, not really because she is such a loyal friend, but because she was so excited at the idea of taking the pencil sharpener to pieces and then putting it together again. She woke up that morning and declared, “Today is going to be the best day ever, I get to take the pencil sharpener to bits, clean it and put it back together!” To my knowledge, she had never actually taken a pencil sharpener to pieces before and had no real knowledge of what it would take to put it back together again. But she was totally, blissfully unperturbed by the almost certain failure she would encounter before perhaps, by chance, landing upon the correct assembly…or not. I can't remember whether she ever succeeded in her task, it doesn't really matter, what matters is that she was undeterred by the prospect of possible failure. And this fearlessness in the face of likely failure is one of the reasons that I believe that my daughter will grow up to be a very innovative person.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the US and the world needs to be more innovative in this new world economy. It is equally clear that the US is in real danger of not only losing traditionally left-brained and factory line jobs to China and India, to name but a few of the growing outsourcing destinations, but is now beginning to lose its much vaulted innovative edge. As this New York Times piece lays out, the “United States ranked sixth among 40 countries and regions, based on 16 indicators of innovation and competitiveness.” And there’s no doubt in my mind that failures in our education system rank high in the US fall from innovation grace. “What skills do children need to be innovative” is an increasingly written about topic and President Obama recently launched a campaign, “Educate to Innovate” to address this very issue.
A lot of competing theories abound in the innovation field, but there is at least one very clear theme that seems to be almost an unchallenged assumption: you cannot have innovation without failure. Fail fast and fail often.
If you are never failing then you are not thinking out-of-the-box, you're being too risk-averse, too conservative, and no one ever innovated from a risk-averse, conservative position. Innovation is about turning concepts and ideas on their head, on their side, inside out, and sometimes when you do that, actually most of the time when you do that, you fail, but sometimes you invent the electric light bulb. Giving people the freedom to fail gives them the freedom to create and innovate. As this Accenture report on innovation says, “What’s important sometimes is not how a company deals with success but how it deals with failure. There is a sense in which the best innovators know how to reward failure…the risk of failure may be the most frequent killer of innovation.”
But failure is tough to deal with. In general, as a culture, we reward success not failure; in fact not only don't we reward it, we often don't tolerate it. Aggressive corporate review processes usually have no place in them for the things you tried to do but failed. You list successes; you get rated on the number of successes, wins, sales. Sales managers get rewards based on actual sales wins, not the creative selling attempts they made.
This piece, “Failure a Means for Innovation” details a “conversation with two high school principals. Both were clearly smart, empathetic, and hardworking. But my shoulders froze when I heard one of them say, “we don’t accept failure.” It goes on to claim, “our educational system…demonizes failure.” It seems that intolerance of failure is as true in education as it is in corporate life. Everything about the modern US education system is geared towards getting the correct outcome the first time. Tests and grades reward not only success, but conformity. The multiple choice test, the test of choice for state mandated testing in elementary and middle school and often beyond, is not, by its very nature, a vehicle that can encourage creativity or experimentation. If we increasingly evaluate our children using these tests, and spend a large part of every school day teaching them to take these tests, then what we are teaching them is that to choose the wrong answer is to fail, this failure is something to avoid at all costs and that there are repercussions that can sometimes ripple through an entire life. If this is the focal point of learning, as increasingly it is, then what we are raising is a risk-adverse generation who see no value in failure, try to avoid it at all costs and are in fact terrified of it. And this is not a good thing for the future of US innovation.
What would an education system that encouraged failure look like? How would that work? Well, as I wrote in my last piece, my children go to a wonderful, progressive school, the Robert C. Parker School. Until this year in fourth grade, my daughter had never been given a spelling test. Moreover, up until third grade she was not discouraged from writing using “funny”, phonetic spelling. The theory: that the most important thing is that the children learn how to write and express themselves and feel comfortable and confident putting words down on paper. Now, when they're in fourth grade, and comfortable reading and writing, there is more focus on the correct spelling.
But of course, innovation isn't just about failure itself, it's about learning how to manage and deal with failure; how to generate lots of ideas however absurd and improbable and critique them later. Knowing when to cut your losses and move on. So, if our children are never allowed to fail, how are they learning to appropriately manage failure? And without these skills, how are they learning how to innovate?
What's key about my children's school, is that in every grade the school cultivates a safe learning environment where experimentation is encouraged and it's okay to fail. This encourages the students to be intellectually vibrant, academic risk-takers for life. My daughter may be taking apart a pencil sharpener today with no clear idea of how to put it back together, but I truly believe that one day she is going to take that sense of adventure, curiosity and acceptance of the role of failure in the learning and creative process, and will grow into a creative, innovative person who isn't afraid to experiment because she's not afraid to fail.