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Safe failure

Aim of the tool
To share failures so to increase learning from experiences

When to use it?
This tool is useful at the beginning of an intervention, it can also be used for evaluation purposes

How difficult is it to use it?
Easy – moderate – for experienced users/facilitators

Tool for thought or tool for action?
Tool for thought

People can learn a lot from mistakes. Learning from someone else’s mistake, might prevent you also from making the same mistake

Issues to be aware of
You need to create a culture of trust and safety for people to be able to share their mistake. People might feel insecure, embarrassed or vulnerable about sharing their experiences. You should agree beforehand that whatever is shared is confidential.

Description of the tool
Success in development is not possible without taking risks and innovating. It is important to publicly “celebrate” your failures, as this allows sharing the lessons more broadly and creating a culture that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking.

“Safe-fail experiments” can also be used as a problem solving technique that emphasises controlled failure through the carrying out of many varied experiments in a complex system. In complex systems you need to experiment. Safe-fail experiments are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles, in small and safe-to-fail ways. The intent here is to approach issues in small, contained ways to allow emergent possibilities to become more visible. The emphasis is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system has shown the appropriate response to its stimulus. Where systems and the environments in which they exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain, introducing and increasing organisational tolerance for failure is, therefore, more crucial than ever.

Another area of application is the ‘Getting It Wrong’ approach for students. If they make errors, they will learn more. Research (Kornell et al., 2009) has shown that learning is better if conditions are arranged so that students (also) make errors. People remember things better and longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material that they are bound to fail. Isaac Newton once said, "If you do not commit mistakes then you have never tried something new". And a Japanese business leader said, “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. But make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice”.

There is also a website where people can share “Brilliant Failures”. Their goal is to bring about a shift in the way people view failure—to promote a positive view of failure through the use of stories, film, interactive workshops, and road shows. It is a kind of acknowledgment to inventors and to those who had the courage to try something different. Time and time again history has shown that our most valuable experiences are more likely to come from mistakes rather than from successes. We learn from our failures and our failures are a source of inspiration for others. In this respect, failure is not only an option but failure is also necessary! 

Another method which can be used to learn from mistakes is called Ritual Dissent.

"Mistakes are the stepping stones to learning"

We organised a workshop for our own organisaiton around sharing mistakes and learning from them. The workshop facilitators took great care to frame the objective of the workshop and to create a safe environment by starting off with sharing their own examples of failures and mistakes that they had made in the past. Then the other people were invited to share their own mistakes —the objective here was to learn from mistakes

Steps involved in using the tool
Make sure there is enough trust and safety in the room before you start sharing failures and mistakes. Also, agree that the experiences shared will remain confidential. The following steps can help in the process of learning from mistakes:

  • Reframe your mistakes

First, use reframing to stop thinking of your mistakes as failures. They can be more accurately described as opportunities for learning—people generally learn more from mistakes than they learn from successes. With each mistake, you can learn valuable information that can be used for future success.

  • Be forgiving

Next, maintain perspective and don’t take mistakes too seriously. Blaming others for our mistakes can be a defense mechanism—we stay in denial because we can’t take our own harsh self-condemnation. Be forgiving. Just changing your outlook on this can make it less threatening to recognize when you’re responsible or partially responsible for things not going according to plan. Adoptng this approach will make it easier for you to be able to learn from your mistakes.

  • See what you can change

Rather than thinking about who is more responsible for a situation—you or another person—look at the situation as a whole in terms of what you can change. If you view taking responsibility through the lens of personal control, in terms of what can you change next time, what do you have control over, then it can be an empowering experience to learn from your mistakes.

  • Look beyond

Look at other sides of the same situation. How do different people in the situation feel. How might things have gone differently if you’d made different choices? Look at the situation in different ways. Play with it. And see what you can learn for next time.

Ask questions:

Ask for impartial opinions. Ask a few trusted friends who will tell you the truth, and who can see things from both sides, what they think about the situation. Sometimes we’re too close to the situation to make sense of it at first, but an observer who isn’t so emotionally attached, and who can deliver their opinion with love and tact, is what we need to help us learn from our mistakes.

Learning from mistakes requires three things:

  • Putting yourself in situations where you can make interesting mistakes
  • Having the self-confidence to admit to them
  • Being courageous about making changes

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you in your investigation:

  • What was the probable sequence of events?
  • Were there multiple small mistakes that led to a larger one?
  • Were there any erroneous assumptions made?
  • Did we have the right goals? Were we trying to solve the right problem?
  • Was it possible to have recognised bad assumptions earlier?
  • Was there information that we know now that would have been useful then?
  • What would we do differently in this exact situation again?
  • How can we avoid getting into situations like this? (What was the kind of situation we wanted to be in?)
  • Was this simply unavoidable, given all of the circumstances? A failure isn’t a mistake if you were attempting the impossible.
  • Has enough time passed for us to know if this is a mistake or not?

Source and further readings


  • Chiles, J (2002). Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the edge of technology. A series of magazine style essays about major technological disasters in the last 100 years. Includes the Challenge shuttle, Apollo 13, & Three Mile Island.
  • Dorner, D. ( ) The Logic of Failure by. An analysis of decision making mistakes in complex environments. More academic than Inviting disaster, but also more prescriptive.
  • Kornell, N., Hays, M.J., Bjork, R.A. (2009) Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 35(4), Jul 2009, 989-998.