“But what do I do if they get it wrong?”
It’s a question we hear a lot, particularly from facilitators who are just setting out on their transition to including more focused experiential content to their delivery.
My blunt answer is typically “That’s exactly what’s meant to happen and it’s a clear indicator of available learning”; but instead I’ll try to offer 3 ideas about how we can unpack that fear of failure and suggest some constructive ways for facilitators to consider the potential that exists when, in task terms, groups are not succeeding.
Before we start, can I emphasise that this stuff is important, it’s needed in just about every organisation that we work with. Here’s what Amy C. Edmondson wrote in the Harvard Business Review of April 2011:
“The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated.”
You may react to that quote by saying that detecting failures is standard practice in most organisations; the key word here is effectively. When failure happens it often provokes a knee-jerk reaction assigning the cause of the failure to something obvious, and this ‘blame-game’ often completely misses (and misses the opportunity to remedy) the true cause of the failure.
In focused experiential learning we devote a lot of time to extracting learning from shared experience, and that gives us time to practice being effective at recognising what led to the failure and what lessons we can more generally take from it. So while the learning activity may not feel much like work, the discipline and practice of analysing performance is a vital transferable skill.
These are the context-specific learning strategies that Edmondson is referring to, and in focused experiential learning we’re both developing them and simultaneously building an appreciation of their workplace value. Ultimately the target is to include this and other learning-centred approaches into the workplace culture:
“build a learning culture—one in which failures large and small are consistently reported and deeply analyzed, and opportunities to experiment are proactively sought.” (Edmonson A.C. HBR April 2011)
1/ What may help you as a facilitator, and the groups who participate in experiential learning sessions, to see mistakes as a positive thing is to consider your sessions as rehearsal space.
In any environment where performance is valued - (and the workplace is very much that) - the time dedicated to rehearsal is assigned immense value. If you can re-frame learning tasks as opportunities for rehearsal, spaces where mistakes can safely be made, where risk taking is encouraged, where success will be applauded but failure will be equally appreciated, then every task-outcome is viewed simply in terms of the opportunity for learning it offers.
With that frame of reference, groups tend not to be upset or demotivated by failure, especially if you review effectively and then offer another opportunity to apply the learning they have acquired.
2/ How you define success is a key strategy in working effectively in the focused experiential arena. I often use the phrase “The only failure is a failure to learn” when I’m working with groups - emphasising the differentiation I make between task-achievement success and session-outcome success.
I assign task success little importance, of course I’m pleased for a group when they successfully complete a task, but the essence of my job is to ensure that the group extract all the relevant learning from the experience. Let’s acknowledge success, then quickly move on to defining what that learning is and how it might be applied in, and transferred to, the workplace. If we’re all measuring success as the quality of learning transferred then we can be happy with any task result - as long as it generates learning.
3/ Just as in any rehearsal environment there’s a lot of repetition in focused experiential learning, we take the learning from one task and move to another task in order to provide an opportunity to deploy that learning.
If a group has not been task-successful in the previous activity it becomes very important how we introduce the next activity - and it certainly isn’t “You got that wrong so let’s see whether you can do better in a new task”. What you need to do is to refer to the review rather than the task, e.g. “We’ve done a great job in identifying how we are when we are successful” or “You were really open in the review and came up with some excellent things you want to try next.”
The reason for this is explained in Pragya Agarwal’s 2020 book Sway; Unravelling Unconscious Bias:
“when people were reminded of their successes of the past, they were more likely to repeat those successful behaviours. But when they were conscious of or actively made aware of their failures from the past, they were less likely to overturn the pattern of behaviour that led to failure. So people were in fact still likely to repeat that behaviour.” (Agarwal P. 2020)
Look back to the successes achieved and strengths demonstrated from the previous activities as you introduce the next, it’s a much more positive way to start and much more likely to deliver the behavioural change you’re looking for.
Those are just three strategies to think about when you’re planning and delivering your next session of focused experiential learning.