Riff Fullan & Zenebe Uraguchi
In part one of our blog post, we wrote about the different ‘oops’ moments of 45 colleagues. In part two, we discuss if these colleagues shared their oops moments with others. We also show the importance of cultivating organisational culture for learning and innovation to make individual experiences more valuable. After all, learning and innovation is helped or hindered by the surrounding system.
Taking risks: sharing ‘failures’ and learning
Do you owe it to anyone else to share a failure story? The majority of the colleagues did share their experiences with others. This showed that they took failure as a ‘badge of honour’. As two different respondents neatly put it, ‘it is often small things like this that help us improve what we do’ and ‘if I know my weaknesses, I am able to find my own strategies to slightly and continuously adapt the way of working.’ Fear, embarrassment, and intolerance of failure drives our learning underground and hinders innovation. And this is summed up by a colleague in her frank response:
‘I dare to ask the “stupid questions” others think they would not ask, because they do not want to look stupid. Why could I allow myself to “look stupid”? It is always easier to do this when you are new in a function, in a team, in a country – it is more difficult to ask those kind of questions when you are “supposed to know”. I must admit, I ask such questions sometimes on purpose to stimulate reflection…’
Some saw it as a bone-chilling event that causes much self-criticism, and when it does happen, they hold onto it. Even though past successes are said to be built on routinely experienced failures, few colleagues hesitated to share their oops moments for fear of being interpreted as a sign of weakness or seen as less authentic. One colleague’s initial reaction to oops moments was ‘to put them away as quickly as possible; you know something did not go right and simply do not want to think or reflect upon it any further: it is uncomfortable talking about them.’
For others, it is when they are not afraid of ‘making a mistake’ that they are open and ready to experience new things and push themselves out of the comfort zone. Such fear can cause us to unconsciously disrupt our chances of success: ‘there seems to be a perception that we are all experts and we should know answers and solutions to questions and challenges’. Others believed that it is not a full-blown fear of failure that holds them back from sharing their oops moments, but rather to share the oops moments with an audience that can appreciate them and the lessons they bring: ‘it is better to talk with a few like-minded people who are close to me, understand what I want, know the institution really well and therefore can anticipate such chains of reactions.’
At the organisational level, perhaps shoestring budgets and the funding structures of development organisations make it difficult to admit failure, as it is not clear whether sharing failure will be rewarded or penalised.
‘Previous colleagues from a donor of a project that I have been working were very understanding and they encouraged us to share the good and the bad. With the change of staff, things have also changed. With a growing chorus of critics of development and tightening of budgets, I am now more concerned about meeting the targets and satisfying the donor and stakeholders than talking about failures…’
Some colleagues working in the field who described their experience as ‘failing well’ did not share the experience with their partners ‘because we did not want to stir up trouble’. Yet they believed that the experience made team members ‘more open minded when someone came along with a proposal to start something new to achieve similar goals’… and this led to an intervention that we are now very happy with.’ This confirms the experience of another colleague: ‘I have learned most in “the stress zone” where oops moments are integral part of it.’
From here to where: connecting ‘oops’ to ‘wow’ moments
Learning and innovation is helped or hindered by the surrounding system. Therefore the importance of learning and innovation from oops moments has more value when individual experiences are linked to organisational culture. This means, organisations and leaders will need to proactively nurture learning and innovation for employees to ‘bounce back from the low moments by putting their experiences in perspective for learning.’ Without this, the experiences will remain limited to few individuals who dare and feel ‘safe’ to share their oops moments.
The exchange with 45 colleagues on different oops moments has been a useful, even stimulating, drive for our better work. The respondents have strong faith and pride in their work and the vision of their organisation. A number of events in the past, even though not intended to talk about failures and learning, served as opportunities to share oops moments; no one tried to shove them under the rug.
Several respondents welcomed the exchange but emphasised they ‘miss often the spaces to openly discuss…and use opportunities (e.g. team meetings) for more than sharing information and include exchanges on oops moments.’ Others have concerns that ‘encouraging failure’ will lead team members to ‘dodge their responsibilities’, and that they are fine leaving the experiences as they are.
Overall, there is a genuine interest to kick-start the process for a more open and honest conversation for ‘future-proofing’ continuous learning and innovation. This is expected to create ‘more trust among colleagues within the organisation’, says one of the respondents, and for the purpose of, concludes another, ‘letting others fail without letting them be failures so that we will be more conditioned to celebrate many more wow moments.’
Riff Fullan is the Team Leader of Knowledge and Learning in HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation based in Zurich, Switzerland.
Zenebe Uraguchi is the Programme Coordinator for Eastern Europe and Senior Advisor in market systems development based in Bern, Switzerland.
Additional sources: just watch…
- Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!
- What happens when an NGO admits failure
- Strategies for Learning from Failure
Cover photo courtesy of Teacher Toolkit