Learning from Failure

Here’s an experience this summer in which I didn't come out of very well. Or did I? You be the judge.

I was shopping for summer shoes. So I found a pair I liked in an M&S outlet. So I took these shoes to a stool to try them on. The right shoe did fit me quite well. “This looks promising,” I thought.

Then I tried to put on the left shoe. I struggled. I struggled some more. Putting this shoe on was proving to be harder than I had expected. 

The sort of narrative that was running through my head went something like this: “Maybe this pair isn’t for me. Maybe my left foot is slightly larger than the other; it happens. But why haven’t I been aware of it before? Maybe I should abandon buying this style of shoe.”

Then it occurred to me to check the soles for the shoe sizes.

Yep! Sure enough, I’d picked up a size smaller for the left shoe.

Embarrassing!

I could have berated myself for being stupid, or a useless shopper. Instead, I decided to do something slightly different: I checked my heuristic.

A heuristic, from the Greek to find or discover, is an approach to problem-solving. The problem I was trying to solve was whether a new pair of shoes would fit my feet. However, it wasn’t getting me anywhere until I first checked I had a pair of the same size. My shoe-shopping heuristic missed a step - pardon the pun! 

What failures have been useful to your skill development?

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This incident illustrates how we can learn from instances where our current heuristic fails. We reflect, and we change or augment our learning process. However, we often don’t. 

Check Your Heuristic

Project management is an attempt to systematise, to make repeatable, steps in a project. The problem comes when a project manager moves to a different context; their heuristic often seems to fail them. So when it comes to developing new skills to a higher level, failure is an asset. A skilled project manager becomes so because they experience a widely different set of contexts and levels of complexity. Book learning can fail them, but that is not necessarily the book’s fault. 

So we need learning environments where we are always consciously honing our skills, where we can value failing in a positive way.

What failures have been useful to you? Leave you observations below in the comments.

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