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The risky business of learning design

April 12, 2016

At a party recently I had a flash of insight. A number of disparate ideas suddenly aligned in my head with an almost audible ‘clunk’, lubricated by prosecco and stimulating conversation.sailing

I was talking to a couple of friends about the sports I’m into and what I enjoy about them: sailing, skiing and mountain biking. In all three of these I’m not competitive. I’m not bothered about going fast or far. I don’t want to be the best. What I do enjoy are the more ‘technical’ aspects of the sports; in sailing I like close-quartered boat handling. In skiing – popping off the side of pistes and threading through the trees. In mountain biking I like the technical trails – the jumps, bumps and berms. In short I like to stretch my abilities take calculated risks. When you do – interesting things happen. Possibilities increase.

This made me think about the kinds of learning design projects I most enjoy. These tend to be the ones where we are exploring and pushing boundaries, where we’re trying to solve a problem, looking for a smarter more efficient solution. By definition we are often doing things for the first time; pushing technologies to work in new ways, approaching a problem from a different angle, being innovative in some small way. There is risk here. In trying something new you will almost always fail before you succeed – it’s a natural part of the process.

Many organisations want their people to be more innovative – it gives their company the edge over the competition. Innovation is a ‘sexy’ concept and something many people aspire to. However, to be innovative you need to be a risk-taker – to try something and fail, to get up, dust yourself off and try again – and to not feel bad about it.

How is failure viewed in your organisation? Think back to the last failure you witnessed or was a part of (gulp); were there high-fives all round, was the failure celebrated for the valuable lessons-gained? Or were those responsible shamed or reprimanded. Or worse, was the failure hidden?

I believe failure should be categorised and reacted to

  • Failing at something that you really should be able to do standing on your head – OK, yes, that’s bad. Pull your socks up!
  • Failing at something you are trying for the first time – this is a natural part of the learning process. It may be uncomfortable but an important part nonetheless.
  • Failing when trying to design something – this should be celebrated! You should thank the universe or this failure and glean every insight, every lesson that you can. You can bet you’ll remember them.

If you appreciate that failure is a vital part of the design process and welcome it, you will start to take risks. You will become more innovative and your designs will improve.

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