Being proud of the failures
We all make mistakes. Mine have included making decisions above my pay grade, sharing information in a meeting which I ‘thought’ everyone knew and not kissing Katie Patterson when her big sister locked us in the shed together (true story).
Believe it or not, organisations make mistakes too. We commission projects which don’t do as well as we thought they would, we employ people that don’t end up performing well and we add things up wrong so that our accounts are more entangled than a plate of spaghetti. And the similarities between personal and organisational mistakes?
We cover them up.
The general consensus is that if you can hide things away well enough or spin it around so that a new set of success measurements are achieved then you’ve won. There’s always next year after all, and neither you nor the organisation can then be accused of not being good enough – solid reputational risk management, surely?
Well, no. You or your organisation still got it wrong; the only thing you might have got right was the cover-up. And the better the cover up, the more complete the mistake and failure. The better you hide things away not only from others but from yourself, the less likely you or your organisation are to learn anything from the whole experience and therefore the more likely you are to repeat it in future.
One of the joys of having children is that you have an excuse to watch children’s films and one of my favourites at the moment is Meet the Robinsons. I won’t ruin the story by revealing the plot (and it is a great film by the way!) but I will share one of the core tenants of the main characters; keep moving forward. The idea is that everyone is going to fail, the important thing is to fail spectacularly and then learn from it, moving you and your project forward in the process.
In local government however we seem to see any setback, however minor, as a major failure and verging on disaster. This very blog nearly died before it had lived after one such overreaction, and I’m certain each and every one of you will have experienced some degree of cover-up. It might be as simple as saying “well, we meant to do it that way” or might be bigger and involve ensuring that certain angles are taken when the inevitable post-mortem is carried out.
I remember one of my own first big foul-ups. I was running a series of community engagement events, and had been asked to do it all at very short notice. In three and a half weeks I’d managed to bring together a team of eighteen delivery staff, get local press excited, have a dozen organisations sign up to attend along with some of their members, developed a session plan, produced all the powerpoints needed and arranged for refreshments. I’d had help doing this of course, but overall I was responsible for it and worked my rear end off to make sure everything was under control.
Turns out you can’t control the weather. We experienced some pretty significant snow that day, a risk I’d not built into the initial plans, and in the end only a third of the participants expected turned up. The staff all turned up late so missed the briefings and hadn’t read through their briefing notes so felt unprepared, and one of the boxes full of equipment wasn’t brought so we had to improvise a lot of stuff. The presentations also turned out to be a bit long, and feedback from participants was that whilst they enjoyed it there were things which could be improved.
I was shattered. Despite all my work it wasn’t a Hollywood ending, and I dreaded the next day in the office where I knew my line manager would be waiting for me. Sure enough, a review meeting had been scheduled in, during which all staff went through and listed all of the things which went wrong. To compound the whole horrific experience I made the final error of taking responsibility for not expecting and planning for the unexpected, and accepted that there was more that could have been done in advance to ensure its success.
However, what I didn’t do was repeat these errors. For the next in that series of events I ensured all of the equipment was taken, that there were backups, that the staff were almost over-briefed, that the presentation was trimmed and that I checked the weather to react as needed.
And I didn’t get so hung up about my mistakes again. I took each of those lessons and not only learnt from them but shared those experiences with others. I wrote a case study, and used it to inform an event pack with checklists and plans for similar events which I both used myself and shared with colleagues. Since then we’ve not been caught out by bad weather again.
Now, when I have interviews and am asked the traditional “tell us when something went wrong and what you did about it” question I have an answer. I am open about what happened, what I did differently and how that changed my own and my colleagues work practices in the future. I have faith that if I hadn’t thrown my hands up, accepted responsibility and told others what went wrong that many of my colleagues might have made similar or identical mistakes. As I worked in a team which ended up delivering many similar events this could have had a much wider and more negative impact on our work than that first event had.
And that’s where I feel we are missing a trick in local government. We expect perfection first time, and anything less is deemed not good enough. Learning is something you do at university or whilst on training courses, not something you do in the workplace. Projects which aren’t 100% successful have their parameters shifted, good news amplified and lessons learnt suppressed.
So I say to you; embrace your failures. When something goes wrong don’t just fix it and move on; tell others what went wrong and how you fixed it, so they don’t make the same mistakes themselves. Be proud of your failures, learn from them and then be sure you don’t repeat them. At least that way, before too long your mistakes will be far more interesting than they used to be.