Cultivating Failure to Encourage Creativity

One of my new colleagues at the CFI pointed me to this video by Astro Teller (what an amazing name) from Google/Aphabet’s ‘X’. Well worth watching but here’s my summary of the key ideas.

Teller suggests that every new project development includes both time that is directly productive to achieving the outcome and time spent learning stuff about how to achieve that outcome. For many of the ‘Moonshot’ projects at Google/Alphabet’s ‘X’ the learning can be 90% of the time spent on the project with only 10% of the time directly producing the outcome. He identifies ‘innovation’ as making that 90% as quick and efficient as possible – the ability to “compress” that learning to be quick and cheap is a mark of how innovative an individual or organisation can be.

As a result “fast failure” is encouraged, i.e. not dragging out failing projects but being ruthless at culling them, optimising the learning acquired, and moving onto the next project.

He then identifies a host of reasons why humans don’t like failing and especially not publicly and how they’ve built a culture that encourages learning from fast failure, builds creative confidence, and keeps them innovating.

Rewarding people for killing projects: actively celebrating individuals and teams who end a project and rewarding them with bonuses and holidays for doing so. He really stresses the importance of authentic rewards here – no amount of goodwill and certificates creates cultural norms quite like financial bonuses do.Using “pre-mortem” meetings at the start of a project to tease out the predicted reasons it will fail – and then working to mitigate or remove those risks.Acknowledging creative thought-processes (even if the idea itself stinks), it encourages people to take risks and be creative.
All these ideas make sense in the context of creativity and rapid innovation – but as Teller himself acknowledges they’re a little counter-intuitive to most work and study environments where ‘failure’, criticism, and silliness are not rewarded.

This feels particularly challenging in an academic environment where we inevitably try and mark someone for getting it ‘right’, where the ego and professional reputation staked to a specific idea can make it feel like juggling porcelain, and where a slow bureaucratic process makes trial-and-error difficult to use as a development tool.

Nonetheless, I think the success or otherwise of the CfI is going to hang on how well we manage to create the right culture to empower and inspire our students. The use of experiential learning, formative assessment, reflective and portfolio assessment, and extensive collaborative working across disciplines are all at the forefront of our methodology.

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