‘Always make new mistakes’ Esther Dyson

FailureSometime ago I went to an event run by The Crowd about celebrating failure. I wrote a separate blog about it here.

I was part of a round table discussion on sharing failure. You can see the full discussion here. We left with more questions than answers and I’ve summarized my 3 key take-outs below.

Bravery – we must find a way to be braver about sharing failure in the first place, both with our internal teams and external audiences. But when is the best time? And what is the best way? Do we market them to all audiences as near misses, or half-successes, or are we absolutely blunt and face criticism head on and learn a lesson in resilience?

Ambition and aspiration – our scope for failure is somewhat dependent on our level of our ambition in the first place.  Is it better to fall short of an audacious goal or succeed at mediocrity? If we only aim for success we end up in a society that only breeds mediocrity. How do we get better at actually aiming to fail and doing it fast to minimise risk and maximize learning? Developing a different attitude and culture for failure starts with education. Sir Ken Robinson talks about this here.

Being clear on what success looks like – its relatively easy to take a failed project and retrofit success to it; for example ‘the fundraising campaign didn’t raise any money, but it did create lots of awareness’ (sound familiar?) – I’d argue that if the goal was to raise x amount of money and it didn’t – it was a failure. And let’s not get bogged down with the failure bit, but let’s be ruthless in understanding why it failed (without necessarily blaming anyone) so that next time, if you agree there should be a next time, the project has a much higher chance of being a success. And the awareness raising – congratulations because that was an excellent added extra, but let’s be really honest, if a project didn’t achieve it’s objective it failed.

It’s all very well to say we must learn from failure, but the topic of sharing and learning from failure is really difficult because we are programmed to succeed. But as Woody Allen said “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative”

I’d love to know your thoughts and if you can, please be brave and share examples of failure here, or your tactics for sharing and learning in order that we can all achieve more.

8 Comments on “‘Always make new mistakes’ Esther Dyson

    • Thank you for sharing and leading by example Lesley. I also have a herb garden as a stepping stone to something more ambitious/filling!

  1. Interesting post Lucy. It’s a politically fraught area within companies though, I think. I remember at my old (fairly small) company there was a culture of decisions on all sorts of things being taken (or not) by the management team, and not delegated. All this meant a lot of the time was that there was a log jam – there would be little progress on medium-sized issues because they weren’t deemed ‘strategic’ enough to make it onto the over-full management team agenda usually, but no one at the next level down had been tasked to take decisions that might involve spending money – because of a fear of failure and taking the wrong decisions, basically. I remember challenging it and saying – we need to empower people and let them fail every now and again, or they’ll never develop. Only to be told by the chairman that no no Sam, I should be talking about letting people SUCCEED if I was going to advocate that….sigh. Tim Harford’s book Adapt is good on this one- you need to build systems that allows people to fail in small ways and ensures that organisations understand why, so they don’t fail in big ways.

    • Thanks Sam, the situation you describe is common in my experience – for me there is a disconnect between leadership/management/development ‘gurus’ teaching about how it is important to learn from failure – but when it comes to it its incredibly hard, for some of the reasons you explain, so it doesn’t happen. And the same mistakes happen over and over again. Yes – Adapt is excellent. I’m struggling to find examples of people, companies that have a process/framework/culture in place that does genuinely support learning from failure, in big and small ways rather than paying lip service to learning from failure….big sigh.

  2. Even if senior management encourage innovation and accept a level of failure, we still have to overcome the personal blocks we all have around failure – as Lucy says these are learned at a very young age and are hard to move on from. We need practical, tangible ways to support staff to experiment. For us at Havens Hospices this means that new ideas are piloted with a ‘year zero’ – a year to get a new concept or approach up and running without consequences. In year zero there are no financial targets (or staff simply won’t take the risk) instead we measure the non-financial markers – and compare them to our strategic drivers which we know (longer term) generate income. Then if we feel the pilot is worth pursuing we can set clear targets for year one. If it’s not worth pursuing we celebrate the increase in knowledge – as we now know this is an area not to waste money on! Teams take turns to lead on new projects, taking on the responsibility for trialling ideas that could fail – so everyone has a shared experience of what the process is like.

    • Thank you Vanessa – I love the idea of ‘year zero’ and that everyone gets an opportunity to work on a year zero project. Thank you for sharing. I may come back to you for a bit more info in due course if that is ok? This is exactly the type of example that I am looking for. Its so very different knowing its OK to fail, than actually failing and experiencing it being OK.

  3. Actually it’s in the moment of failure that the greatest insights can happen. But for that to kick in you need to admit the failure. Then you start to see failure as friend – how it can spring board you to a new level. If you fail to admit it then the learning just doesn’t happen. I’ve seen organisations totally miss out on the learning because they hid the failure away.

    If you see how people learn a musical instrument they do so from failing, and then adjusting, and learning.

    At a time when fundraising needs to profoundly change we need to embrace failure and see it part of the process that gets you to where you want to be faster! Fundraising also needs to wake up that we need new measures – its not just the return on investment any more its about the return on engagement. The danger is we see something has failed because we apply the old measures. Fail – learn – leap is a mantra I was told once.

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