Charity Support, Advice, Impact Measurement, Philanthropy Impact – NPC

Successful failure & the tyranny of shame

By Charlotte Weinberg 3 March 2015

One of the many advantages of being a senior leader in an organisation is that of being able to decide what is and isn’t a failure and how to deal with it.

Sometimes this is easy. Our petty cash system was a bit ropey and we learned how to improve it. This clearly didn’t need a public broadcast, but it did require some internal communication triggered by a ‘failure’.

Sometimes, however, it can be a much more politically sensitive issue. What if, for example, we decided to undertake some research that returned negative findings about one of our areas of work? Worse, what if one of our pieces of work ‘failed’ participants or beneficiaries? What if our work caused harm or damage? Surely we would feel uncomfortable sharing that kind of failure?

The rhetoric is that by sharing these findings, we not only rectify the issues identified but contribute to improved practice, creating a more useful and productive approach.

We try to apply these principles at Safe Ground. Staff, even I (don’t tell anyone), make mistakes with alarming frequency. That in itself is no bad thing; we expect it to happen and have robust mechanisms for review, reflection and supervision through which we can analyse error.

But sharing mistakes, failures and errors of judgement can be painful and embarrassing: the admission is one thing; dealing with the reaction can be worse.

Telling funders about failures is usually an expected part of any award; funders, statutory or voluntary generally include an entire section of reporting around what didn’t go to plan/as expected and what did you learn. That is easy because funders are usually supportive and have invested in the organisation on the basis of a strong proposal and systems for understanding and dealing with ‘failure’.

Telling other organisations can be a different matter. We are increasingly compelled to discover our USPs, to compete for funds and contracts and to ensure our services are seen as ‘the best’ and most desirable. The dynamic in which I have to be constantly able to evidence my superiority inherently involves a set of criteria among which failure is a low priority. So, I may learn to hide my failings, to disguise them and to spin them as ‘learning’ or simply to ignore them from my public facing discourse.

Successful failure allows me to include my failures as part of my development; we only have the high-quality services we do because we are consistently alert to the missed evaluation questions in our research, the rejected funding and contract applications, and the disputes we experience in our strategic relationships. Our failure is successful because it drives our curiosity and motivates our vigilance; not to avoid failure necessarily, but to understand it when it happens.

I would love to be able to share more of our failures. It may be unprofessional and it may make us look somewhat unable to manage our affairs, but every example of failure I have mentioned here is real and, to some extent, unavoidable.

What would it take for charities, businesses and public services to be open and honest about the poor systems in operation among us all? How many Rotherhams, HSBCs or banking crises do we need before we can understand that sharing failure once it has been rectified is much less helpful than sharing failure while it is being identified?

If I can only share the failures I have put right, I am effectively sharing success. It will take an enormous culture shift for organisations to genuinely look to each other for support and understanding when things go wrong and, if and when we achieve that, we may actually be able to improve all our practice and deliver services for people that model and mirror the complexities of all our lives.