The glory of failure (& a bit about creativity)

Today I went to a Big Lottery Fund seminar on People Powered Change, facilitated by their social-reporters-at-large, David Wilcox, John Popham and Drew Mackie. It was a really lively event with energetic and interesting people who were very engaged and full of ideas. (You can find out more about what went on in this Storify that John’s put together).

I arrived to find myself on the delegate list under ‘Organisation: ‘Very lively online’ – which I quite liked, but I think Shaun Walsh (BIG’s Deputy Director of Communications) was slightly embarrassed…he clearly doesn’t know me J

I joined a discussion about peer-learning and telling stories and the focus of the conversation turned to what could be done to share learning better within the VCS (and what BIG could do to encourage this).

I suggested, much to the amusement on one of the other tables (when my point was tweeted) that BIG might consider creating incentives for failure to be more honestly reported.

The problem, as I see it, is that despite the talk about learning from mistakes there’s currently very little incentive to be honest about when things go wrong or we make mistakes. Not horribly, incredibly pear-shaped. Just a bit wrong. If we say ‘oh we didn’t actually achieve what we said we would’ and went on to explain why, we worry it harms our reputation and prospects of future funding. So we don’t. We pretend everything is wonderful and we kid ourselves that’s true. And we don’t learn and nor does anyone else and no doubt someone makes the same mistakes again in the future.

So, how can we create incentives for people to be more honest about failure? Or as Roxanne Persaud puts it how can we really create a culture which recognises ‘the Glory of Failure’?

As one of the biggest funders in the country BIG has the chance to make a real difference by how it approaches things. I remember when they really started getting serious about outcomes, it changed how many not for profits think about outcomes (and also a number of other grant makers). Surely BIG could turn their attention to honesty in learning and play a similarly ‘shaping’ role?

One obvious way of creating an incentive to change behaviour is with funds. [And before all you behaviour change experts start telling me that extrinsic incentives, like money, aren’t as effective as intrinsic rewards….I know, but I think it’s a slightly different situation]

What would happen if BIG gave money to people who made mistakes and admitted them? Clearly that’s absurd. Public money can’t just be given to people to mess up. So what about if there was money for people who made mistakes, admitted them, and demonstrated they’d learnt from the experience and changed things as a result? That, in my view, begins to get closer to something that might have merit.

At this point I want to mention how I view creativity and idea-creation – or at least how I develop ideas and new thinking. When I have an idea, I don’t really expect that idea to be a game changer…in fact I rarely expect it to be viable. So I am not seriously saying that the BIG should just give cash to people who screw up. But, from that turning things on their head to tackle a problem, an idea emerges which I (or whoever I’m with) can build on – or spin off from – and play with to see if there’s something in it that could be useful. By the end (and I don’t think I’ve quite got there yet with this one) the bonkers idea that had the table at the back laughing [you know who you are…!] was becoming something that you could sort of see there was an idea in there worth thinking about. The way my brain works really only mirrors a tried and tested creative thinking technique that Edward De Bono (no less) advocates of turning things completely to their opposite and seeing where that leads you.

Peter Wanless, BIG’s chief executive (who I briefly ran my half-baked thoughts by at the event) tweeted shortly after ‘like idea of BIG paying for learning from failure if helps inform future. Less sure about more cash so same people can have another go’. Now I’m with him on that one….but I think what Peter was saying (and he can correct me if I’ve got this wrong) is that there may be a germ of an idea in there about some sort of financial incentive for learning from failure.

There are all sorts of issues that would need to be worked through – not least accountability to Parliament for spending public money – but perhaps there’s a way forward.

Maybe BIG can play a role in establishing a new approach to learning and more honest about failure in this way? And if they do, I’d like to think my suggestion had contributed just a little, whilst amusing some people along the way.



9 thoughts on “The glory of failure (& a bit about creativity)

  1. Great blog Toby.I’d just add that a future of co-production and personalisation will demand honesty of this this kind. It’s essential that future service design (in whatever sector, and whether at the infrastructure or the delivery level) is cognisant of this.Anyone wanting to understand more about failure – and if you don’t you need a long look in the mirror – could do worse than a read of Paul Omerod’s "Why Most Things Fail" – a very accessible introduction to the iron law of failure.

  2. Just reading this article shows why a lack of people owning up for failure has detrimental impacts on policy and people’s lives. 100,000 more children will be in poverty as a result of the Autumn Statement. Now IDS could have argued that he’s working on a variety of measures that go beyond the Autumn Statement that will ensure this doesn’t prove to be the case or that the current measures are still being tested and will reviewed regularly to allow for learning. Instead, he argues that the outcome of reducing child poverty is now a bad outcome altogether. Wonder what a political culture of acknowledging and allowing failure would have impacted on this policy? Allowed him more freedom to experiment to see which approaches did start achieving the outcome?

  3. Good to see you flying the flag for failure! When I was with New Start we constantly mooted the idea of ‘bad practice awards’ as a learning event but (despite constantly being told that failures were what helped people learn) nobody would put their head above the parapet. I don’t think the culture of spinning mistakes as successes has changed, but BIG really are in a position to start doing that. Maybe it’s something the likes of NESTA could promote too. It must be better than waiting for the National Audit Office to catch up when things go really pear-shaped.

  4. An excellent and timely post, Toby, not least given that our economy is experiencing systemic failure. It is high time we thought of mistakes as necessary. Without a learning curve, there is no learning.

  5. I completely agree with the importance of learning from failure. In fact I’m not really sure that there is much learning from success. The succesful people learn, sure, but case studies and study visits and evaluations (and I’ve produced a mountain of all of these) … well it’s really difficult for projects and deliverers to work out why someone else was succesful and if the lessons apply in their own context. But failure seems to be much more transferable. I’ve found it quite easy to get people to think again by letting them know informally how bad things went for others who did/didn’t do the same thing. My only argument would be that I think BIG are actually quite good at allowing the projects they fund to learn from failure anyway. We do a lot of work for them and find them quite open on that front. Maybe they could fund a prize for learning from failure from other funders’ programmes? Perhaps the winner could get the funding they just lost for being honest replaced by a BIG grant 🙂

  6. Liking this discussion. Mistakes (when acknowledged) cause us to question assumptions. Success often causes us to make assumptions. This is what funders need to do … get down and dirty among the assumptions. When as individuals, organisations and communities we dig up assumptions and examine them honestly … then it becomes more obvious what to do more of, what to change and what to do less of. And also helps us all to laugh … sometimes our assumptions can be endearingly absurd :)Like Jeremy, I found the strategy/ policy folks at Big Lottery in Scotland very open to discussions about failures.

  7. Seems to me that Peter Wanless’s comment misses the point entirely."‘like idea of BIG paying for learning from failure if helps inform future. Less sure about more cash so same people can have another go"The second part of this comment is *exactly* the problem – if you aren’t going to get a chance to have another go if you admit failure, why would you? Are we supposed to try once, and if it doesn’t work first time then we simply become an exhibit on ‘what not to do,’ put on display for others to learn from, but not allowed to try again ourselves?

  8. As someone who has run projects funded by BIG and other large trusts, and who now helps VCS orgs prepare funding applications, I see a real anxiety about how to report and present on failure to meet outputs and outcomes. If as a project manager your chances of still having a job in a year’s time depend on how you present your project’s successes and failures you’re going to feel inclined to gloss over your mistakes and the learning they could generate. Longer term funding (5 years+) is only a partial answer to how people feel about and deal with failure in their projects. Providing support in kind like UnLtd and others do could be an answer. I like the idea of funders working more closely with projects and orgs to create cultural change about how we learn from mistakes. Nominet Trust have started to create a knowledge community for orgs they have funded. Perhaps BIG could create something similar that captures mistakes/failures and how they were successfully tackled.Also, in the spirit of De Bono’s approach, how about payment by non-results?!

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