How to … fail well

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How to … fail well



Group of 4 dancers on pavement next to railings by a river
© Image: The Lowry

By FailSpace

SUMMARY

Owning and admitting openly to failure can be uncomfortable. But what do we mean by failure, and how can we change our perspective away from things 'going wrong' to think about what to do next?

This how-to guide has been developed by the team at FailSpace. It will help cultural organisations not only to recognise failure, but to fail well.

Read the guide below or download the guide as a PDF.

Introduction

When reflecting on your work as an individual, within your organisation, or sharing stories externally with funders or other stakeholders, how easy is it to be honest? Really honest?

  • Have you ever found it hard to talk about things that don’t work?
  • Do you wish you could share your failures more openly?
  • Or feel the stories of success you hear about other work don’t represent the way you feel about your own?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are not alone. Our research suggested that a lot of people working in the cultural sector find it hard to talk openly about failures.

This how to guide, created by the FailSpace project team, will help you to understand how to better recognise, acknowledge and learn from failure.

Why is it important to critically reflect on failure?

“If everything always worked perfectly, you’re probably not taking as many risks as you could be” - cultural participant in our research

As researchers, cultural practitioners or policy makers, we are all constantly involved in the process of evaluating our work. But too often the focus of such practices is on accounting for what we have done instead of reflecting on how we might improve what we do next. As a result we tend mainly to tell stories that celebrate success, which in turn lead to what Michael Howlett describes as ‘technical learning … repeating over and over again the errors of the past’ (Howlett, 2012a).

From the research the FailSpace team has done in the cultural sector, this is not surprising. In a context where many professionals see success and failure as binary opposites, there is a belief that success brings rewards, in terms of reputation and funding, whereas failure results in punishment. If there is any reflection on failure, it tends to take place in private and is not often shared. But this reduces opportunities for the type of ‘social learning’ that is necessary to enact meaningful and sustainable change.

We believe that very little of what we do could ever be called an outright success or outright failure. Instead, success and failure exist at different points along a spectrum. So, we can (and do) succeed and fail simultaneously: in different elements of the work, to differing degrees, at different stages, and for different people.

While several cultural professionals we spoke to said they have the Samuel Beckett quote “fail, fail again, fail better” pinned on their office wall, most saw this as an aspiration rather than something they found easy to do. This guide aims to help you make this a reality!

So, to become true learning organisations – collaborating to make the sector more equitable and inclusive – what if we didn’t ask if something is a success or a failure? Instead, what if we ask: Success or failure for whom? To what degree? And to what effect? This change in perspective allows for more critical reflection in which success and failure can co-exist, and where different points of view are not only valid, but essential to understand the cultural value of our work.

How does this guide work?

This guide is based on the principles of ‘critical reflection’ (Hansen 2013), which rather than through introspection, encourages conversations between people who hold different points of view, at different stages throughout the life cycle of a project. It aims to facilitate ‘social learning’ (May 1992), recognising the value of openness and honesty in bringing about change.

There are many theories on reflective learning, but they are all based on a cyclical process that involves testing, reviewing, learning, and revising rather than a linear process based on inputs and outputs, which so many evaluation models use. The following chart illustrates this process and the kinds of questions you might already ask when reviewing any action.

Graphic of five circles showing a cyclical process, with arrows between each. In a clockwise direction, they read: 1 Aims: what did you hope to achieve? what did others hope to achieve? 2 Actions: what did you try out to achieve those aims? 3 Reflection: what was successful and what failed? Why? 4 Learning: how might you do things differently? 5 Re-action: do you need to revise the aims or your actions?

While this approach is commonplace, what we found during our research was that for many people working in the cultural sector, fear, discomfort or just resistance made it difficult to talk about what didn’t go as expected, let alone failure. It was even harder to identify what they had learnt from their reflection if they had changed their practice as a result, or how they had shared their learning openly with others.

But what we also found was that normalising conversations of failure makes it easier to do so. So, this guide offers a five stage process to help artists, organisations, participants and funders have more open and honest conversations about failures which we hope will support more social learning in the cultural sector.

5 orange boxes containing white text, positioned around a circle. From top and moving clockwise, they read: 1. Starting the conversation 2. Normalising the conversation 3. Exploring the facets of failure 4. Capturing different perspectives 5. Sharing your learning

We have designed a range of tools to support each of these stages which are free to download from our website failspaceproject.co.uk. However, our tools are not intended to be prescriptive and there will be many other ways you might find to help you identify, acknowledge, and learn from failure. The information below explains our process and provides some ideas to get you started.

1. Starting the conversation

Developing an understanding of the successes and failures that can co-exist side by side make it easier to talk about failures. To this end, we designed a storybook that tells two stories of a cultural project. One is the narrative of success we most commonly hear and the other is a narrative of failure that we seldom share. You can read or order the book via our website.

In addition, you could look back at a previous report or evaluation you have done of your own work and think about how you could tell the story of that project in a different way. This might be taking a different perspective, telling a different narrative or just reinstating some elements of the story that you had previously left out. You might do this on your own or in a team.

2. Normalising the conversation

The more people hear others share stories of failure, the more they are willing to do so themselves. Sharing our own stories and modelling that behaviour also makes people less resistant and helps us all acknowledge our own failures.

In our research, we recorded a number of actors voicing true stories of failures we had gathered from our interviewees, which you can listen to on our website. We also designed a series of postcards to encourage people to share their own stories of failure with people they wouldn’t normally. Once people had other examples to get them going, they were much more willing to open up and share their own. You can see what others have written or upload your own by visiting failspaceproject.co.uk/postcards.

 

3. Exploring the facets of failure

Hopefully you are starting to feel more comfortable talking about failure!

The next stage is about embedding this into the way you work by defining what success and failure might look like in your work and for the different stakeholders you might be working with.

Through consultation with cultural professionals, we have identified Five Facets of Failure (well ok, they apply to success too but that doesn’t fit the alliteration). Each has six degrees of delivery.

Five Facets of Failure
Purpose
– This facet relates to the attainment of stated aims, objectives and outcomes of the project or policy. It also relates to the delivery of intended benefits for target groups.

Process – This facet relates to the design and implementation of the project / policy. It encompasses all of the actions, activities and stages of a project / policy from beginning to end.

Participation – This facet relates to who participates in the project / policy and how, at every stage from design to delivery and evaluation. It also relates to the development of a sustainable coalition of stakeholders, with different interests but equal influence.

Practice – This facet relates to the creative and cultural intentions / aspirations of the project / policy. It also relates to its critical reception as a piece of creative practice.

Six degrees of failure / success
Outright Failure
Precarious Failure
Tolerable Failure
Conflicted Success
Resilient Success
Outright Success

Together the five facets and six degrees form what we call the wheel of failure. You can find details of how we have defined each of these degrees at: failspaceproject.co.uk/wheel. These definitions are intended as a starting point and the key thing is for you and your stakeholders to discuss and agree what the six degrees of success or failure would look like for your project in each of the facets.

This approach should be used at every stage of a project from planning, through consultation with stakeholders to final evaluation. Different stakeholders could complete separate wheels, allowing you to compare and contrast different perspectives on the project.

A circular diagram showing the five facets of failure and the six degrees of failure or success

4. Capturing different perspectives

All the stages above can be done individually, with your teams, or in collaboration with a wider group of stakeholders, but the focus of this stage is to reflect on whose voice has not been heard.

5. Sharing your learning

The number one barrier we found in talking about failures was having the confidence to share them publicly. Yet, our research showed the more we do this, the more others will share, and the more it will become normalised. This is the first step towards creating a culture of social learning where enhancement rather than accountability is the driving factor.

To this end we are encouraging people to share their stories of failure via our website or write failure-based learning case studies for the Centre for Cultural Value.

If you are interested in contributing to either please contact l.jancovich@leeds.ac.uk or use the postcards on our website.

Published: 2022

Smart tags

Evaluation
Resource type: Guide/tools