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.