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Illustration by The Project Twins

Experimenting with Failure

Booth Strategy Lab, an experiential learning course, helps students uncover the upside of adversity.

When students take Booth’s Strategy Lab, an experiential learning course, they are sure to encounter failure. That’s because reconciling setbacks is one of the goals, according to professor Harry L. Davis. Davis teaches the MBA course in partnership with consulting firm A. T. Kearney, and he also presents the curriculum as a semester-long exercise in Executive Education leadership courses. “Most people overestimate the downsides of failure,” said Davis.

Students participating in the course use a 20-cell board with experiential commands that allow them to practice basic skills, such as seeking input from a stranger, practicing active listening, and playing devil’s advocate when they’re part of a consulting team.

Students take turns rolling dice to determine which approach to experiment with that week. Results are written down and used to track progress—or setbacks. Often, only a small portion of the experiments turns out well; other portions get chalked up as learning experiences. This kind of personal experimentation is critical when building the soft skills required for leaders, added Davis.

Keeping track of the experiments and observed outcomes is key, said Davis, who added that students document progress using either an app or more-conventional methods. Rather than encouraging them to reveal the ups and downs to a career coach, Davis advises students and alumni to track their progress on a more personal level. Even though the experiment isn’t controlled in a rigorous, scientific way, it’s important to understand progress through analyzing the data. “It’s in the Chicago tradition of bringing real hard data to soft skills that are really critical,” he added.

Practicing these soft skills provides a better understanding of smaller-scale issues that often go undetected in the workplace. For instance, someone who fails at asking tough questions in a meeting won’t draw ire from coworkers.

The idea is to foster a culture of experimentation that can make setbacks—even significant ones—feel like a more regular part of work life. “It’s smart to be more agile and more adaptive, rather than being stuck in a set of perspectives that worked early on and may not be working so well now,” said Davis.

Outside of the course, Davis is working to encourage students entering their first year as MBAs to start these purposeful experimentations right away—and to build them into a weekly exercise. The regular practice can help develop resiliency over time that easily transfers to the workplace. “If you have run a lot of experiments and you have something that doesn’t work out well, you realize that it’s inevitable and you need to just continue to work,” he said. “I’m hopeful that people who do this at school may be more used to setbacks when they move into the workforce.”

Davis hopes to see this type of trial-and-error approach integrated into a company culture, and that finding solutions through agile thinking becomes the norm. “These are ‘accidental’ experiments that are actually everyday activities,” he said. “We can use them to transform ourselves with almost no effort and no cost.”

—By Alina Dizik