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By Mr A.J. Bowyer

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”– Colin Powell[1]

Success in battle is not always determined at the decisive engagement, but more often by the training and resourcing that occurs prior to the encounter. This was the case during the Burma conflict in WW2, where as part of Field Marshall Viscount Slim’s strategy to repel the Japanese, an emphasis on his initial campaign plan was placed on his Divisions having an opportunity to conduct jungle specific training prior to heading to the front line.[2] The practicing of skills in the psychomotor domain of learning, such as tactics techniques and procedures, has always been a cornerstone of military training. [3] Understanding of military training has expanded to look in depth at the cognitive factors that influence how to conduct warfare. Planned failure, specifically how as a force, they collectively deal with misfortune is one factor that training has started to incorporate. This has been emphasised in the NZ Army’s Future Land Operating Concept 2035 (FLOC 35), strategic concept document which challenges the force to “be prepared to fail in training, so as to ensure they do not fail on operations.” [4] Incorporating planned failure into training is necessary to achieve successful training outcomes to prepare the force to win on operations.  This essay will firstly investigate the balance required between incorporating success and failure in training, also what place training to failure has in the training system. Secondly, it will look at the potential ways to incorporate planned failure into training at both the individual and collective level. Finally, it will investigate people’s mindset towards failure and how it needs to adjust to incorporate this theory of training. It will be examined from a NZ Army and land combat perspective; however, the considerations could be applied to a joint, sea domain and air domain perspective.

To provide context to the essay, failure is defined as a lack of success. It is scalable and based on context. For example, a practice section attack results in the KIA of one section member. For the section commander, this could be deemed as a failure because they were unable to keep all their section members alive. Conversely, if this was conducted as part of a battalion attack, while unfortunate, the loss of a single soldier may not be perceived as failure and rather an accepted nature of the operation.


Finding a balance between success and failure

Incorporating failure is often not accepted as a theory to include in training, because it is seen as a pathway to failure on operations. However, conducting warfare is inevitably going to have a degree of failure associated with it, regardless if in victory or defeat. This was certainly emphasised by Sir John Keegan who stated, “All battles are in some degree disasters.” [5] D-day is an example – despite an Allied success, they suffered more casualties than the Germans.[6] Therefore, failure in training needs to be incorporated to some degree and balanced with success.

There needs to be a balance when designing training so it incorporates both success and failure. Although there is a requirement to maintain a ‘winning mindset’ within the force, it is imperative to winning, that they know how to respond to a loss. Incorporating and learning from failure, whilst maintaining balance with success, is emphasised in the key principles of training: [7]

  1. Training of Relevance. Incorporating failure meets the necessity for it to be relevant to requirement and through “bringing training objectives to life through inspiring, imaginative and effective training.”[8]
  2. Challenging Training. Training needs to test trainees and organisations, so they are challenged mentally, physically and intellectually. Incorporating pressures, such as there being the ability for a trainee or group to fail at a task or there are planned failures within an assessment, adds a sense of realism.[9]
  3. Competition in training. Competition where there is a winner and loser, to acknowledge success and learn from failure.[10]

These principles show that keeping them in mind will help guide a trainer and training organisation, ensuring that training is well balanced. Not using these principals as a ‘handrail,’ will result in having unbalanced training which can lead to ineffective learning and achievement of outcomes.

If all training led to a result of failure, then this could be counter-productive to meeting the training or learning objectives. An example of this discovered in the US Army, Warfighter Exercises (WFX) which are designed to test brigade and division level headquarters (HQ) through the conduct of a command post activity. Over the period 2016-2017, they conducted 18 iterations, of which the opposing force defeated the blue force all 18 times. This created a negative effect of assured failure within the organisations during these iterations and led to negative impacts on learning outcomes. For instance, the conduct of the after-action review (AAR) at the end of the activity had little impact to foster improvement, because there was no comparison between what went well, and what went wrong.[11] In contrast, if an exercise or assessment only led to assured success, it does not create the realism required to prepare to win land combat operations. It clearly does not meet the intent of FLOC 35, which points out the requirement for commanders at all levels to train to adapt to developing situations. Indeed, elements of success need to be incorporated, so there is an understanding of what ‘winning’ looks like; however, as previously discussed, there needs to be misfortune incorporated into training to replicate the complexities of the future operating environment.

Ultimately, people buy-in to training if it is realistic, imaginative and challenging – to extend soldiers and organisations. If people do not feel they have the hope of success, it might lead to a loss of optimism within their present situation. Despite the concept of a balance, there is advantages to incorporating training to failure. By way of; definition, training to failure would be a scenario, task, exercise or activity where the purpose is for the individual or group to not succeed at what they are doing. An analysis by first principals would be required prior to implementation. Training or leaning outcomes set out within the plan, directive or syllabus would require analysis to ensure this type of training is suitable.[12] If it does not meet this test, creating a situation where you train to failure may not be justifiable. If it is suitable, allowing this effect to achieve the outcome, would require interrogation to determine what is the best mechanism. To meet the desired outcome, principles around safety, participants understanding of the purpose and a culture of accountability would need to be implemented prior, during and post the activity.[13] As discussed in the US Army WFX scenario, if optimism is removed, there would need to be an understanding if and how that might affect the trainees’ willingness to learn through the process.[14] An example of training to failure might be testing the blue force by exercising the adversaries assessed most dangerous course of action. This would then challenge the trainees’ in how to mitigate the misfortune, rather than focusing on winning the encounter. Exposure to this kind of training, when conducted correctly, could be a force multiplier and relevant when incorporated at both the individual and collective training levels.


Incorporating failure in training

Incorporating failure in training at the individual level enhances an individual’s capacity to do their role to job standard, prior to doing it on operations. The early phases of the Burma Campaign emphasised the importance of this theory if not incorporated. During this time soldiers, did not have the opportunity to learn from their failures in a controlled and safe environment, instead having to learn whilst ‘on the job’ fighting both the Japanese and the Burma jungle. Slim highlighted this lack of training was one of the reasons his force was required to withdraw from Burma. Post this withdraw they were then given time to train in India which positioned Slim’s force to take the fight to the Japanese.[15] Therefore, it is clear that incorporating failure in training at the individual level is important; however, given time constraints on organisations, analysis needs conducting on how best to accomplish this method.

With the increased demand on time, there is the risk of individual training having lesser attention given to it than collective outcomes. A focus on ensuring individual training is given emphasis is reinforced in FLOC 35, which highlights the importance of it being the foundation of which to build on.[16] With this intent in mind, but acknowledging the demands on training organisations and units, for it to be implemented deliberately it is imperative that when incorporating planned failure, enhancing the outcomes identified is deliberate. The Officer Cadet School of NZ (OCS (NZ)), a school which is consistently ‘hard pressed’ for time, has acknowledged the importance of this philosophy and designed a specific exercise to incorporate failure. Exercise Nemesis is a resilience activity designed to test a prospective Officer, both mentally and physically. Executed through scenarios, it includes a number of unachievable tasks. The purpose of these are not to ‘mess the trainees around,’ but rather specifically test the leader and individual’s perseverance in the face of almost certain failure. Through how they behave and what decisions they make, assessment is conducted based on the teachings they have had on the Leadership Development Framework at both Lead-Self and Lead-Teams levels. This exposure, while during their training is a moment most want to forget, actually creates a ‘bank’ of experiences, which they can then take forward for the rest of their careers.[17] This example highlights that the failure in training theory, can be implemented at the individual level, even with resource constraints. It also shows that failure in training is not limited to a single training domain.

Incorporating failure into individual training is not limited to skills based training – implementation can occur across all three learning domains to enhance professional mastery and ultimately lead to fighting power: [18]

  1. Psychomotor Domain (Physical). Students could react to failure by drawing on a skill or producing a product through conducting the skill appropriate to the situation they face. An example of this is during individual weapons training, by testing their ability to react to a weapons malfunction, such as an obstruction. However, these types of tests are only useful when the participant already has performed the ‘habit level’ foundation knowledge of the skill. For example, you would not teach and test the reaction to a weapons malfunction, prior to teaching students how to operate the weapon when it is functioning normally.
  2. Cognitive Domain (Intellectual). When producing their thoughts either written or verbally, trainees could be taught what failure looks like, whilst analysing and describing the knowledge they have obtained. An example of this could be an essay, in which they need to find the faults within it, to understand what they should be conscious of not doing. The assessment will likely have fail criteria to enforce the importance of conducting the task correctly.
  3. Affective Domain (Moral). This domain could integrate failure, by testing people similarly, to how Exercise Nemesis did in the OCS (NZ) example, through an assessment of behaviours. Morally, what right and in the case of failure, wrong looks like, can be explored through discussions. For example, during recruit training, getting prospective soldiers to understand what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, in line with the NZ Army’s ethos and values.

Training to failure at the individual level can clearly focus on a single domain and it can be maximised to include areas across all domains. Once the individual foundation has been built, the incorporation at the collective level is concurrently developed and subsequently implemented into the training cycle.

Incorporating planned failure in training at a collective level only enhances soldiers and commanders individual skills, knowledge and attitudes to perform their role within their units and formations. Therefore, building cohesive, competent and operationally ready organisations.[19] By implementing failure as a part of the process at the collective level, it enables an organisation to experiment through the development and testing of new concepts and capabilities. An example of this was the Joint Warfighter Exercise 2019 (JWA 19), which was a multi-national activity that tested the US Military’s Multi-Domain concept. The exercise was an experiment, in which all participants knew from the very beginning was destined to include and have failures. These failures were accepted from the start and allowed a trial based mindset across the activity. Even though all elements exercised, realistically failed at many of their assigned tasks, it enabled them learn where they had vulnerabilities and where they needed to improve to implement this new concept. For instance, within Battlegroup (BG) Taniwha, the NZ battalion HQ, they found that in order to maintain tempo in the advance, it needed to plan for and incorporate effects from assets, from multiple domains, not assigned normally to a BG in the past school of thinking. They only learnt this after failing during an attack on opposing forces, who while numerically inferior, were applying the same theory they had yet to master.[20] This example highlights that through incorporating failure into collective training it can lead to a successful outcome, in particular if needing to experiment. To enhance this, the principals of effective collective training can be analysed.

When the principles of collective training; specifically: innovative, efficient and effective, are applied, it improves on the foundation that individual level training provides. By incorporating failure in training, these principals are enhanced as follows: [21]

  1. Challenging training is required to be innovative, as conducting the status quo eliminates the cognitive unknown. Incorporating failure into collective training through innovative means will enhance the trained state of the collective and invigorate its participants. Again, this should be planned to target the specific training objectives identified. A good mechanism to test the collective, as highlighted in FLOC 35 and regularly conducted in the training of the special operations forces is free-play exercises.[22] Unlike the traditional exercise construct, that has an opposing force controlled by an exercise control element, free-play looks to set up two or more rival forces against each other, and it allows those forces to act as they would operationally, without the constrictive exercise controls in place. This type of training is encouraging competition, realism and often exposes unforeseen gaps in units or formations capabilities. An example of this was a close country exercise conducted by Delta Company, 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Regiment in 2013, which put its platoons and sections (with attached support elements) against each other. After a long period of build-up training, this exercise was conducted to focus on enhancing the entry standard identified before the activity. The exercise exposed vulnerabilities within the individual and collective, which were unforeseen by the commanders and exercise controllers and only further enhanced the outcomes the exercise aimed to meet. It is important to note that free-play exercises, while innovative and challenging, may not always be the best mechanism to achieve training outcomes. For example, when a HQ staff has only conducted command post drills to a practice level, it may require more controlled exposures to situations in order to build this to a habit (competent) level. This is most likely best organised and managed by an exercise controller function to meet the specific training outcomes to improve on this skill.[23]
  2. Whilst conducting training collectively there is often time wasted due to not synchronising training outcomes. When developing collective training, synchronising these outcomes through the conduct of planned failure will enhance all participants trained state. For example, an unforeseen incident that occurs as part of a unit level operation, will not only test outcomes for a unit’s HQ and subordinate elements, but also if well-constructed, will also test formation level assets and HQ. Training outcomes can be identified within the planning phase for a collective activity, synchronising by matching up the outcomes at various levels and through good training design; create a scenario that incorporates a test for all elements.[24]
  3. It is generally at the end of an activity where it can be determined whether the training conducted was effective in achieving the outcomes. The process for this is formalised through an AAR and then post activity report. This then feeds the training cycle, to inform how to better facilitate collective training in the future. To enhance how to incorporate planned failure and ultimately make it as effective as possible at achieving the identified future outcomes.

Through development and incorporation of planned failure into training, and the adherence to the three principles of effective collective training, activities training outcomes and learning opportunities can be enhanced. Before starting the next initial planning conference, and implementing some of these thoughts into the next evolution of training, there needs to be some changes to how people view failure within the training environment as an organisation.


Accepting that failure is part of the process

The Army cannot evolve if all it does is succeed. Firstly, this is unrealistic given the very nature of warfare and secondly, it is a counter-productive approach, as emphasised by a Harvard Business Review article, which stated, “the wisdom of learning from failure is inconvertible.”[25] The same article raises an interesting argument, which in part hypothesises that despite there being a willingness to learn from mistakes, it is how to think about failure that is important. It outlines that failure is not always bad, that people analyse the failure superficially and too often blame individuals. Often, misdiagnose of failure is linked to these reasons.[26] For example, deployment occurs during training of a Forward Repair Team (FRT) from a Combat Service Support Team (CSST) to repair a vehicle at a forward operating base. The team arrives and recognises it has not brought the correct equipment to do the job required. Intuitively most people will begin to point blame; was it the report and return which failed to correctly articulate the fault, did the FRT commander forget to detail what tools were required for the job, or did the workshops commander as part of the CSST incorrectly detail the task required by the FRT? Instead of immediately searching for who is at fault, what is required is a more sophisticated analysis of the failure. Firstly, given it was conducted during training the recognition that this failure is an immediate opportunity to learn, will create a culture of progressive thinking. Secondly, by attributing blame it has only touched the surface regarding the mechanism of failure. Applying Edmondson’s ‘Spectrum for the reasons of failure,’ out of the nine categories of failure, only the first five characteristics even consider an individual may have something to do with the misadventure and only one of these categories explores that the individual deliberately violates the process or practice (deviance).[27] Were there multiple variables, such as some small miscommunications across the process that caused the break down? Was it that all participants took reasonable actions in their appropriate parts of the process, but a lack of clarity of the fault caused the failure? Given this was only training; it now serves as an opportunity rather than a calamity two-fold. Firstly, it provides a chance for the training to rectify the failure, which may not have been a planned experimentation. Secondly, it allows an opportunity to analyse the issue and find multiple solutions to fix the problem, which will likely transfer positive change onto other processes. By asking ‘what happened,’ not ‘who did it,’ cultural change begins.[28] Not applying this philosophy could lead to a toxic team environment and cause operational ineffectiveness, because the system assigns culpability to failures rather than analysing the fault in detail. This change in mindset will likely take time; nevertheless, the more people talk about failure being a part of the training system, the more accepting it will become as part of the process.



Failure in training, whilst often implemented into training unconsciously, if incorporated deliberately will enhance the ability to deliver a successful training or learning outcome, ultimately to better prepare the force to win on operations. It has been demonstrated that to deliver this outcome, for the most part a balance needs to occur between success and failure, so the learner understands what right and wrong looks like. To strike this balance the principles of training provide the guidance. In certain circumstances, there is a place to train to failure, to test how to respond to calamitous circumstances as long as it directly links to a training outcome. As discussed, there needs to be consideration on how the trainees will react to this type of training and a required level of trust and understanding between participants and trainers. Subsequently it established that failure in training can be implemented successfully at both the individual and collective level. Through innovation, the only limitation being the imagination of the trainer, it can be incorporated effectively and efficiently, even with the demands on time and resources. It can be implemented across all three domains of learning and is particularly relevant when experimenting. There needs to be a cultural shift with how people view failure, for us to reap the benefits of what this theory of training provides. Through an enhanced understanding that incompetence is only a small part of the gamut of reasons why there is failure. In summary, the requirement for success on operations requires the implementation of planned failure in training. A failure to do so would almost certainly lead to the inability to win in land combat.



[1] Oren Harari, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2003), p.164.

[2] Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat into Victory (London: Pan Books, 2009), p. 35.

[3] AS Army, Land Warfare Doctrine 7-1: Individual Training.

[4] NZDF, Future Land Operating Concept 35 (Wellington: Army General Staff, 2019).

[5] Eliot Cohen & John Gooch, Military Misfortunes – the autonomy of failure in warfare (New York: Free Press, 1990), p. 1.

[6] USA House of Congress, D-Day Plus 20 years (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1964).

[7] NZDF, Defence Force Order (Army) Vol 7: Training.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Major Jerod Madden, ‘Is failure the right training strategy?’ Military Review (August, 2017).

[12] NZDF, Defence Manuel of Learning.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Slim.

[16] FLOC 35.

[17] NZDF, Syllabus A1431: New Zealand Commissioning Course.

[18] Land Warfare Doctrine 7-1.

[19] AS Army, Land Warfare Doctrine 7-2: Collective Training.

[20], 27 Apr 20.

[21] Land Warfare Doctrine 7-2.

[22] FLOC 35.

[23] Land Warfare Doctrine 7-2.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Amy C. Edmonson, ‘Strategies for learning from failure’ Harvard Business Review (Apr 2011).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.