Fail Fast, Fail Often (Fail Safe)
- By Glenn Meeks
- June 1st, 2016
Within the K-12 marketplace
failure is unacceptable, especially
when answering to the local board
of education. On one hand, that is very understandable,
failure affects students; on the other
hand, it places schools completely out of sync
with how the world works today. Businesses
have learned that survival means they must be
nimble and they must learn how to celebrate failure. Learning to
celebrate failure goes back at least thirty years.
In their original book, “In Search of Excellence”, Peters and Waterman
documented that successful companies
celebrate failure. Ore-Ida celebrated the failure
of a potato experiment with the firing of a huge
cannon out back, behind their R&D building.
Their leadership understood that each failure
propelled the company closer to their next success,
so they celebrated failure.
Clayton Christensen’s book, “Innovator’s
Dilemma”, provides insights to how large
successful companies fail to understand the
turbulent, messy, low end of their market
where innovation is the key to survival. These
low-margin manufacturers continuously scramble (trying things
on a small scale and failing) in order to create an advantage over
their competitors. They understand that failure moves them to
their next success. Suddenly, an innovation created to stave off
insolvency at the low end of the market replicates what the big successful
company is doing, but at a fraction of the price. Oops! The
big company never saw it coming and is out of business.
The average person has no idea of how deeply embedded the
concept of Fail Fast, Fail Often is in the whole “Silicon Valley” and
21st-century technology phenomena. A group of people come up
with an idea and they take a leap and try it out; if it does not yield
what was expected, change it some and do it again, and repeat
until you arrive at a product that businesses or people want. It
starts off with a leap, and then a lot of refinement that should be
translated to “failures.” Even then, it may end in failure, but you
must be willing to fail. Many venture capital firms will not talk to
startups unless the leadership has experienced failure.
Carol Dweck, in her 2008 best-selling book, “Mindset: the New
Psychology of Success”, provides a layperson’s viewpoint of her
clinical data that people who accept failure as part of any learning
process are the ones who succeed. They have a “growth” mindset,
meaning they learn from their failures. Those with “fixed” mindsets
will not try something new beause they may fail; therefore,
they never grow. The concept of Fail Fast, Fail Often is critical in
It is important for the educational leaders to understand the
concept “Fail Safe.” Do not experiment at a level where failure will
lead to collapse of the organization or termination of the leadership
team. Recent initiatives where school districts have jumped
feet first into large 1-to-1 initiatives, or orientation to student-centered
learning have failed in spectacular
manner. Make the movement into a new
culture of learning a “stepped” process.
The first step is small and limited in
scope, i.e., a school district with a teaching
staff of 500 wants to move to student-centered
learning supported by a total digital
environment. Find 30 teachers (and their
principals) interested in making that transition.
Start with five teachers and their principals,
providing training on 21st-century
learning methodologies, some digital content,
flexible furniture, at least a 2-to-1 computing device ratio in their
classrooms and a suite of digital learning management tools. Give
them freedom to try different learning methodologies.
At the two-and-a-half-month mark, start an assessment of what
worked and did not work and modify your training and provisioning
of classrooms accordingly. At the three-month mark, bring another
10 teachers on board with training and provisioning of classrooms.
Repeat the assessment at the five-and-a-half-month mark and then
bring another 15 teachers into the program and provision their
classrooms. Yes, training teachers and provisioning classroom at
different times throughout the year can be messy and hard, but you
are changing your culture of learning at a safe pace with feedback.
Make the collection of data a prerequisite for teachers to
participate (data collection is an algorithm on a computer — not a
teacher inputting data). If a student experience does not demonstrate
superior academic growth, stop doing the activity. After
two years of this Fail Fast, Fail Often (Fail Safe) approach, you will
have a clear picture of how to bring the majority of your staff into
this new culture of learning.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.