The Armed Forces should have a different approach towards ’failure’ if they want to develop commanders and staff that are capable of understanding and solving problems creatively. The educational environment is the perfect place to do that. Currently, within military educational processes, failure is sanctioned rather than understood as part of the creative process. Now, at first sight, embracing failure might sound counterintuitive, but there is a clear path that links failure with creativity and the latter with efficient ‘understanding and decision making’ as this article will show. The following paragraphs explore how these parts are connected and conclude with some implications on how failure should be incorporated within the Defence Education Pathway as a means of developing one of the four pillars of ‘understanding’: creative thinking.
There is little chance of being creative without failing. After describing how children are not afraid to be wrong and clarifying that being wrong is not the same as being creative, Sir Ken Robinson1 remarked that “if you are not prepared to be wrong, you never will come up with anything original.” Moreover, Adam Grant dedicated a considerable passage of his book Originals2 to describing how famous artists, whether in music and painting, made hundreds of failed attempts before they could produce a valuable piece of art. Additionally, in his book Creativity Inc.,3 Edward Catmull carried out an in-depth analysis of creativity in the context of an organisation. The author establishes a linear relationship between failing, punishments and fear (of punishment). The outcome of this cycle tends to disincentivize people from exploring new approaches and therefore reduces the likelihood of doing something creative. So, if failing is a normal step within the creative process, why do we punish it or why don’t we celebrate or share it?
Beyond defence, there are some companies such as Google, BMW, P&G and Supercell (a video games company) that stimulate learning from failures by conducting regular contests and in some cases giving rewards to those who have exhibited a large amount of effort which turned into failures. For agencies like Blueprint Creative, this approach is seen positively because it inspires creativity, saves money in the long term and develops better interpersonal relations.4
The connection between failure and creativity is demonstrable, but what about the possibility of exercising failure within the Armed forces? To unpack this, we need to identify the link between creativity and the military instrument. First, Joint Doctrine Publication 04 “Understanding and Decision Making”5 indicates that “In Defence, understanding underpins everything that we do” and continues to state that this concept “helps us to identify the causes of conflict, the nature of emerging crises, and the context required for determining deterrence, coercion or response postures.” So, according to doctrine, understanding and, consequently, the elements associated with this concept are vital to delivering the military function.
Secondly, the relation between creativity and understanding is given by the foundations of this last concept. The publication mentioned above supports the idea of understanding through four main pillars: self-awareness, critical thinking, continuity and creative thinking. These pillars “aim to improve our capacity (…) to think creatively and open-mindedly about problems.” Moreover, one of the factors that affect the development of understanding is the ‘command climate’, where leaders are called to “create an atmosphere that encourages open-mindedness, critical analysis and creative thinking.” Put simply, not only is there no creativity without failure but also there is no understanding without creative thinking.
So, the question now is how do we embrace failure (and other parts of the creative process) within military environments? Some might argue that defence environments are not the place to risk failing given the consequences that may ensue, yet this is only partially correct. Education is the essential area within the Armed Forces where failure can be exercised with very low negative consequences. Military education can be modified through curricular changes, by including training objectives, new learning methods and/or designing better marking criteria. These changes should result in creative competencies, such as tolerance of failure among others.
Additionally, there are many other ways to change our approach to failure. Returning to Ed Catmull, he suggests that one way of dissipating fear of failing is encouraging leaders to share their failures with the organisation. This behaviour would help the members of any institution to feel less uncomfortable with their own feelings or fear of failure . In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Justin Brady says that “if you can’t admit your failures, you cannot connect with your team.”6 This was what the Australian Defence College Commander Mayor General Mick Ryan did on a post in 2018 where he described his own failures as an officer cadet and how the 1987’s Australian military academy commander gave him a second opportunity to do things properly; Gen. Ryan wrote “His decision taught me that failure is an opportunity to learn.”7 Hence, why do we not encourage this kind of conduct not only across military education, but also within all military activities? I think that the positive outcomes will go far beyond the development of creativity, further strengthening trust, leadership and esprit de corps.
Failure is a crucial part of the creative process and, in turn, creative thinking has a significant role in the development of understanding. Therefore, if the Armed Forces seek creative staffs and commanders, they should have a different approach towards failure. Part of the solution could be found within military educational environments, which are safe spaces to allow people to fail along the route to be more creative. This idea was already supported by the Joint Doctrine, which indicated that “command and staff training must advance the skills that develop understanding.”8 Finally, it is essential to mention that tolerance to failure is just one characteristic related to the creative process. The creativity field shows several features that could be included across military educational processes such as the interrelation of disciplines, the ability to challenge paradigms and lateral and divergent thinking to name a few. The inclusion of elements like those, within educational policy across military organisations, will directly contribute to improving the understanding among commanders and staffs and, therefore, to develop a better military instrument.
Lt Col Fernando Garetto
Lt Col Fernando Garetto is a Chilean Army Officer with more than twenty years of experience. Big fan of creativity and currently a student of the Advanced Command and Staff Course in the Defence Academy, which includes completing a King's College London Master by Research (MRes) in Defence Studies. However, the most important experience is that he has failed a lot…