The Benefits of Failure

A few weeks ago, Peter Lindberg wrote about maximizing learning on his Tesugen.com weblog:

Learning is important in software projects, so how do we maximize learning? In Tom and Mary Poppendieck's Lean Development: An Agile Toolkit ... they say something about the level of learning in scientific experiments — that it peaks when the success rate is about 50 percent. I don't remember whether they quoted some study about this, but it sure feels right to me that a balance between success and failure would increase learning. You need some friction.

That caught my attention, because I'd read a related idea the night before, in a classic article that was reprinted in the January 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review. In that article, "Pygmalion in Management," J. Sterling Livingston says that people's motivation and productivity are highest when the boss's expectations are both realistic and achievable. What does Livingston mean by "realistic and achievable?" This:

Research ... has demonstrated that the relationship of motivation to expectancy varies in the form of a bell-shaped curve.

The degree of motivation and effort rises until the expectancy of success reaches 50%, then begins to fall even though the expectancy of success continues to increase. No motivation or response is aroused when the goal is perceived as being either virtually certain or virtually impossible to attain.

I've heard similar ideas in other places. For example, in Becoming a Technical Leader , Jerry Weinberg says:

In order to climb [in skill], you must leave the sure footing, letting go of what you already do well and possibly slipping downward into a ravine. If you never let go of what you already do well, you may continue to make steady progress, but you'll never get off the plateau. (p 40)

A certain amount of failure, it seems, is necessary for learning, motivation, and productivity. So I'm wondering" In addition to motivation and learning, what other qualities might benefit from failure? What are the implications for us as individuals? As managers? As coaches? As leaders? As agents of change?

Experiment: Are there areas of your work or your life in which you almost always succeed? What do you learn from those successes? How motivated are you in those areas?

Experiment Are there areas in which you almost always fail? What do you learn from those failures? How motivated are you in those areas?

Experiment Are there areas in which you sometimes succeed and sometimes fail? What do you learn from those successes and failures? How motivated are you in those areas?

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