This post is inspired by taking part in a recent #LTHEchat tweet chat. If you haven’t yet discovered this excellent chat and have an interest in learning & teaching, go and explore their website before reading this. The topic of the chat was ‘what motivates us to use digital tools for learning and teaching’ and while the conversation was thought provoking the exchange that set my mind on a different tangent was the tweets pictured here with David Hopkins (@hopkinsdavid). Incidentally, if you haven’t already done so, this is a good time to discover the ‘Really Useful Edtech Handbook‘ David has edited.
But now, back to my thought tangent. We tweeted about how reflection is useful and how reflecting on and sharing when things don’t go well is important. David then suggested that we can sometimes learn more from things that went wrong than what worked because we reflect more. And that got me thinking, because I reflect on why things worked or didn’t work all the time and and my working life is filled with ghantt charts, project plans and risk assessments that are all designed to help me understand and shape processes and why they work or otherwise. But I don’t think I reflect more on things that don’t work, because often I cannot afford for something to go really wrong – there aren’t a lot of spaces in my work where it is safe to fail. I am in a leadership position where a big failure can have serious consequences and my job is to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Instead, I think most about the things that went right for all the wrong reasons. And that is what this post is about.
It’s a bit like the ‘known knowns’, the ‘known unknowns’ and so forth. There are things that go to plan and succeed, those that go to plan but fail, things that don’t go as planned and fail and then there are things that don’t go as planned but still succeed. You can easily imagine a pie chart that would show how all activities or projects can fall into these categories. If my plan is a good one it probably has enough flexibility built in to ensure that it can adapt to changes or unforeseen circumstances and still succeed. But it also happens that we arrive at the desired outcome, be that a successful project, resource or lesson, despite things going wrong. For example, if you end up having fewer people to work on something than expected, you might identify non-essential tasks and eliminate them. Or when faced with a problem someone might come up with an innovative solution. Or you might be able to reach your goal in a way that’s more efficient. The key for me is not in following the plan, but to reflect on the reasons why it had to change and to learn from them for next time.
Yet, there is a difficulty when you succeed despite things going wrong I find, because when you report on success your audience will not question it in the same way as they would failure. Whether it’s a colleague, a customer or an Executive Board – successful outcomes are noted and sometimes recognised, but also they can be taken for granted. When something works out we are quick to move on to the next thing, the bigger project… without really understanding why something has succeeded. Often the metrics of success do not reflect what it took to really deliver a successful course or new technology. The measures we set out are often reflective of impact, engagement, income… not usually of the number of times things had to change, how often plans amended or approaches adjusted. In very few instances do you wish to highlight to your audience all the things that went on behind the scenes to make what they are looking at possible. The final presentation, event or report is usually a sanitised version of what we went through, lessons learnt showing what we did right rather than wrong.
I am generalising to a degree, but I do think it’s valuable to consider how we can learn from what succeeds and what doesn’t in a manner that is not as focused on outcomes. Openly sharing practice takes a lot of confidence and determination. Openly sharing the stories behind success AND failures even more so. Taking part in communities like the LTHEchat or indeed those organised by Members of ALT, the organisation I work for, can help with that I find. There is strength in numbers and reflecting on our experiences together can make it easier to share the more personal, less polished stories of we have in common.