I put forward a post for an internal blog about service transformation in my organisation. I wanted to talk about failure (which I’ve already garbled about here). On reflection I think it had some resonance with the resilience musings I post on this blog. So here it is for your debate and comment.
A few weeks ago I went to see Francis Maude MP speak about transformation in public services (with an emphasis on central government). I’ll leave the political discussion for a more appropriate forum, but one thing that struck me from his speech was the introduction of a “Failure Award” that he had overseen – essentially a competition where the criteria was that you tried something and it had failed spectacularly! I really like the idea of this because it reminds us of something that we often try to hide – failure happens. All the time. Especially if you’re trying something new. It is simply unavoidable.
But what is avoidable, and completely in our gift, is sharing and learning from our failures so that we can come back stronger. I’d really emphasise the sharing and learning bit, because the other thing about failing is, it is really tough. Physically, emotionally, or intellectually, bouncing back from getting something wrong is hard. No-one likes getting stuff wrong and it is easy for doubt and self-criticism to sink in. Ironically, while it often feels that in the public sector external judgement is the most important thing to manage, I’d argue that our own personal demons are much more likely to stifle future success. Our friends forgive us far quicker than we forgive ourselves. Sharing our experiences usually puts failure in its proper context and allows us to identify and take value from it.
So I thought I’d share a failure that has been nagging at me. A couple of years ago I had a great idea to start an online book-sharing club in my local neighbourhood. My concept was “what if we turned our homes in to a collective library?” where we could share resources that are often NOT being read, as well as build new relationships around a shared love for books. EVERYONE told me it was a great idea.
And it failed. Miserably. While it was easy to load books to the website, few people could find books they were willing to share. Those who did have books to share didn’t want them back! But most of all I couldn’t get enough people to sign up. After two years, and after much soul-searching, I closed the site. On reflection there were a few factors that I think drove that failure:
- Community engagement is hard work, and I’m lazy – I overestimated the level of community cohesion in my area, and more importantly my reputational value in that community. People had no reason to trust me, or the site I had created, and I didn’t work hard enough to win that trust. I assumed the local society I joined had a thriving network, but in reality it was very passive.
- Sharing is much more personal than giving – I’d only partially understood this. My theory was that by encouraging sharing, which is more of an investment (I trust you with something I want back as opposed to I give you something I never expect back), I could build great cohesion in my neighbourhood. I misunderstood the flip side of this; that I need to trust who I am sharing with otherwise I won’t. I couldn’t overcome the trust deficit because my neighbours place too high a value on the books they loved.
- Wrong solution looking for wrong problem – I live in a pretty nice area where people tend to have plenty of money. They don’t need to share books, they buy them all the time. At best they just want to clear out their houses. Those neighbours who might want to share books to meet new people tended to be elderly and didn’t have internet access, so my platform was useless to them. I was trying to sell something to my community that not only did they not really want, but they didn’t need either!
I’ll admit I was pretty down about messing this up, particularly when I saw how obvious some of my challenges were in hindsight. However in talking about my failure with others, I have gained insight in to what I would do differently next time and even gained enthusiasm for trying something similar again in the future. My failure has transformed into just another experience I can draw strength from.
As the public sector goes on its journey of transformation, I believe that there’ll be more stories like this than there will be stories where people had a great idea that got implemented perfectly. Our challenge as a professional community is how we respond to that, create spaces where we can share and celebrate the bad as well as the good, and most importantly learn to do things better next time.
Each one of us is probably going to have to find our own examples where we can take this rhetoric and make it real for ourselves and our colleagues. And, if I’m honest, it can be easier said than done, but in these times where the context is shifting so dramatically we have to be prepared to try different things, even if it is tough.
Or in the ever credible words of Albert Einstein:
“a person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new”