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The Glory of Failure – Part 1: private public parallels

Last night I attended a Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) event at Cambridge’s ideaSpace all about the benefits of failing.

Glory of Failure is an ongoing RSA project designed to explain and promote the benefits of failure within organisations, individuals and society. This event was part of the project’s dissemination activities.

The speaker was Esmee Wilcox, who was describing the public sector, local government perspective on the topic. Mainly around the question of why we’re not willing to learn from failure.

What struck me were the many parallels with the private sector.  In fact you could essentially swap labels – replace local government with media organisation, Multi-national Corporation or academic institution – and the issues were the same.

This was borne-out by the debate which followed. Representatives from local authorities, education, the third sector and private enterprise all essentially had the same story to share. This post will describe the key points raised during the discussion on why organisations are unwilling to discuss failure. The second part of the post will look at the attempts being made to change this.

Glory of FailureShow me the money

If money is the root of all evil, it can certainly be a barrier to innovation. In the public sector funding for projects is dependent on successful outcomes. Career advancement is dependent on successful outcomes. Failure has become something to be avoided at all costs.

Success suddenly becomes extremely important. This isn’t just a bottom line, or commercial success it’s a case of meeting performance metrics and targets – however irrelevant to the project as a whole.

Defining success

But how do you define success in the first place? When you’re writing requirements documentation, defining success criterion is easy – X should do Y.  It’s measurable. Nothing goes into that specification document which cannot be measured and evaluated.

For some projects – especially those designed to address cultural or social issues – it tends to be less black and white.  How do you measure well-being or self-esteem? How do you judge the impact of a project where outcomes cannot be measured in tangible outcomes like jobs created, investment generated, cash saved?

Short-termism

Project life-cycle don’t chime with political expediency. The short-term objectives – be it the desire to be re-elected, the need to deliver value to shareholders – will (in a large number of cases) always outweigh the life-cycle of the project.

Them and us

The hierarchical nature of organisations often creates the perception of them and us. One attendee, speaking with a local government hat on, said:

“It is nigh on impossible to get someone from Central Government to come and speak to us in local government. The issues we face are never as important as those inWhitehall”

There was also recognition of a reluctance of some organisations to devolve responsibility to ‘the regional offices’. The brightest and the best were in London or head office – those in the provinces should just do as they’re told.

Result: staff members left feeling undervalued, frustrated and unwilling to contribute ideas to the organisations of which they are a part.

Scalability

The discussion also looked at problems of scale. Massive generalisation, but the general rule of thumb seemed to be the smaller the organisation, the fewer layers of management, the more chance there was of ideas being heard.

As organisations grow, it’s harder to maintain one-to-one relationships with decision-makers and so it’s harder to pilot new ideas through the channels to where they might be enacted.

It boils down to culture. For firms like Google, the need to be innovative is in its cultural DNA. It has spread throughout the firm, is supported and nurtured by senior management and is open to bottom up as well as top down innovation.

Most organisations understand the need to be creative, the need to innovate, but culturally they may not be as open to new ideas as Google, maybe unwilling to experiment, or the filtering process by which they select new ideas is not working.

However recognising the need for cultural change and actually implementing it is incredibly difficult.

Why isn’t failure enlightening?

It seems there are two issues here: resistance to change or the belief that suggesting change is pointless.

Firstly, attempting to learn from failure may be challenge institutional norms. Finding out that a project failed because of the way an organisation is structured or functions might be too much for senior management to take.

Secondly, the problem might be one of human psychology. I was introduced to Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness. The massive oversimplification of which can be described thus:  Hypothetically, a child is sitting in a maths class and struggles to do long-division. She asks her maths teacher for assistance, the problem is explained but she still cannot find the correct answer. The child concludes she is rubbish at mathematics.

In organisational terms, continual rejection of ideas or refusal to continue with ‘innovative projects’  mean the individual believes there is no point in attempting to instigate change. An individual learns to act helplessly in a situation based on prior experience.

Ways forward

I don’t want to give the impression that the event was full of negatives, hand-wringing, wailing and general gnashing of teeth. It wasn’t. It was an exploration of the importance of recognising failure, learning from it, and moving on and as such there was some discussion around overcoming these issues, which I will deal with in a second post.

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