Failing forward (safely) with simulations

Most of us hate the idea of failure; of coming up short, missing the mark, and not achieving our goals. For some people, it’s enough to stop them from ever trying. They’d rather minimize the risk by lowering the bar—and their expectations. But what many accomplished people have come to learn is that failure is an indispensable ingredient of success. The trick is failing forward. 

What is failing forward? 

Put simply, failing forward means learning from failure, turning failure from a negative experience to a positive one. When you fail forward, you accept the idea that failure is a stepping stone to future success. You choose to respect failure for the lessons it teaches you and apply those lessons to future efforts, knowing that failure brings you closer to your goals. 

What can be found in failure?

  • Richer perspectives from trying different ways of doing things 
  • Continuous improvement by learning from past mistakes 
  • Resilience to keep trying when faced with challenging dilemmas
  • Innovation through the testing and iteration of new ideas 
  • Motivation to eventually get it right 
  • Courage to see failure as an opportunity to learn 

Fail first to learn fast 

No one likes to fail, but everyone should. Research shows learners remember better and for far longer when they don’t immediately get the correct answer, in other words—when they fail first. Failing creates a stronger emotional response to the material, causing more retention. 

I remember a time when my son Austin was studying electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida. He was visiting home and was finishing up some physics problems before driving back to school. Most of the problems he blew through by looking up the appropriate formula. One particular problem, however, was giving him fits. After struggling with it for about 30 minutes, he finally asked Dad to take a look. It had been way too many years since I took my last physics class, so I turned to Google and quickly located several pages of explanations on how to solve problems similar to his assignment. But when he tried following them, none gave the correct answer. So much for Dad’s help! And this was way before ChatGPT could be asked to explain it! Later that evening, he texted me to say that he had gotten back to campus safely and had solved the problem.

When Austin came home again a few weeks later, he told us about the test he had just taken. “Dad,” he exclaimed, “five of the ten questions on the test were related to that same formula, and I know I aced them all!” When I asked him about the other five questions, he admitted that he was less than sure about those answers. I think Austin’s experience reinforces the conclusions made by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays, and Robert Bjork, of UCLA, outlined in their study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Learners remember better and for far longer when they don’t immediately get the correct answer (i.e., when they fail first).

The research by Kornell, et al., mirrors the results that we have observed with our learning visuals and scenario-based simulations that use discovery learning. For example, the questions and challenges that cause teams of learners to debate and spend time exploring possible answers create the most memorable learning. Dilemmas with easily discoverable answers, on the other hand, don’t maximize impact or retention. 

The same is true when developing immersive scenario simulations. Post-simulation assessment typically shows that retention improves after making an undesirable or incorrect decision. Of course, for the learning to be effective, this must be immediately followed by feedback and rationale for the better choice.

Just like in my son’s case, when the learner fails first, it often invokes a stronger emotional response, and the learner spends more time processing. It seems reasonable that this increased energy, focus, and attention would result in better learning and retention—which is exactly what the research shows.

Guidelines to keep in mind when designing activities that provide the opportunity to fail forward

#1 There should be a reasonable path to failure

The learners should not feel that they were tricked into failing. The information or context provided should present a reasonable framework for the anticipated incorrect choice or answer. However, the correct choice/answer should not depend on nuanced rationale. The response we want to generate once the right choice/answer is discovered is: “Ah, I see that.”

#2 Always provide feedback, coaching, or the correct answer

Feedback should be delivered immediately to prevent learners from internalizing the incorrect response. Part of providing feedback or coaching is giving a clear and succinct rationale for the preferred choice/answer. In some simulation designs, the learner can call on a coach or mentor within the simulation before making a choice. While this option may circumvent failure, the engagement, emotional energy, and time spent processing the material are similar to what would have happened if the coaching had come directly after an incorrect decision.

#3 Provide multiple opportunities for failure, but don’t overwhelm the learner

Carefully choreograph which of the critical content areas should be the most challenging. If every decision leads to failure, the learner will get frustrated and likely disengage. The most challenging situations or questions should be spaced throughout the learning experience to maximize learner engagement.

#4 Ensure there are sufficient successes to maintain learner motivation

This is the corollary to #3 above. While failures maximize retention, successes maintain motivation. Some challenges are designed to give learners the opportunity to play in the gray and generate discussion and engagement; we also recommend including content that is more likely to lead to quick consensus and encourage a “yeah, we got that one” response. This response becomes more powerful and engaging precisely because the team has struggled and perhaps even failed previously.

Unleash the power of failing forward—sans the risk

Most employees are motivated to grow their skills and engage in creative and innovative behaviors at work when they are given the necessary psychological safety to take reasonable risks and find ways to do things better. 

It’s for precisely this reason that we believe most organizations would be better served by implementing carefully crafted learning simulations that give their learners a risk-free way to fail forward. Blueline’s scenario simulations allow learners to learn from their mistakes without real-life consequences. And by putting these dilemmas into a relevant context, the content feels real— making it easier for employees to apply new learnings back on the job. Our passion is helping people and organizations to grow. And a few well-planned, risk-free failures along the way may be just what it takes to help get them there. Get in touch to learn more about our immersive scenario simulations.

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