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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Mar 26, 2021


Is it possible we are approaching learning and development the wrong way? What if we allow people to fail early before we even teach them the basics? This week we explore research around the counterintuitive idea of productive failure.



Hello and welcome to episode 110 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore research around the counterintuitive idea of productive failure.

How do you think about failure? For most people, failure is something to be avoided at all costs. However, failure and mistakes are usually a critical part of learning. In fact, if we want to learn and develop, we probably need more productive failure. Failure that pushes us forward and leaves us better off.

I know that seems counterintuitive, so let’s look at some research that illustrates the point.

How do we normally teach people something new? Well, in schools, universities and colleges around the world the process usually goes like this. First we walkthrough the concept and provide an example. Then we give people a chance to apply what they have learned through a practical activity. Then we provide feedback to people based on how they performed during the activity. Learning complete. And we’ve reduced the likelihood of failure in the practical activity by making sure people understand the theory first. But what if we varied the order of those elements in the learning process? 

Researchers explored precisely that using students in an undergraduate biology course. Some students followed the traditional method I just outlined. However, the researchers also took some students through a very different process. In that instance they started with an activity where students could problem solve without instruction. The students then received feedback about how they went. And, finally, there was a walkthrough of a model expert approach to explain the concepts. Basically this approach forced students to get things wrong and receive feedback early. The students had almost no chance of getting the initial activity 100% right. That provided a rich opportunity for feedback. After all, everyone was likely to have failed the activity in some way. Following that feedback, the students were primed to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts at play in the activity. But did this alternative approach work?

It turned out that the students following the non-traditional approach of productive failure had an average result that was five percentage points higher than the group using the typical approach. That’s pretty impressive. However, the most impressive increases came for students who typically struggled to learn. Those students saw even greater increases in their scores as a result of being allowed to productively fail, receive feedback, and then understand the theory.

So, how does your workplace view failure? What kind of reaction do people receive when they get things wrong? How many opportunities are there for your people to safely, but productively, fail while learning something new? Maybe it’s time to change the way we think about failure and how we develop our people. 

Well I hope you enjoyed this episode. As always, the research referenced in this episode is in the show notes. And we’ve got a really exciting opportunity for groups to learn on our Leadership Today On-Demand platform. If you do want to try that out with a group just get in contact at our website or send an email to for more information. I look forward to signing up some more people for a trial and I will see you next week.




Sunita G. Chowrira, Karen M. Smith, Patrick J. Dubois & Ido Roll (2019) DIY productive failure: boosting performance in a large undergraduate biology course. npj Science of Learning volume 4, Article number: 1