Riff Fullan & Zenebe Uraguchi
In April 2016, Johannes Haushofer, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, published a CV listing his career failures. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada publishes its annual reports of failures, saying ‘admitting failure is a practice of embracing, talking about, and publishing programmatic and strategic failures’. Sometimes such experiences are romanticised (and have become trendy), but they are well-intentioned cases to share and learn from low moments.
The central message of this blog post is to show if learning from failures helps critical thinking at two levels: (i) the personal level and thus being open to learn, and (ii) the organisational level that allows and creates a culture of learning (from failures). To know more, we approached a number of our colleagues asking them to share three things:
- What their ‘oops’ moment was in their work;
- If the experience helped them to improve; and
- If they shared this experience with others and how this was received.
We received 45 responses. Many respondents believed that individual courage to recognise failure and learn from it does not come automatically unless it is institutionally embraced and cultivated. Some feared admitting and sharing failures. Most, however, believed this contributes to taking risks on seemingly ‘crazy’ or new ideas and turning setbacks into opportunities.
Reflecting on low moments
Oops moments in communication
Regarding communication, one response reads:
‘I was working on an activity with a counterpart … then I suddenly realised someone else should have been involved in one way or another, either just to keep in the loop or asked his/her opinion on how things should be done.’
Other aspects of communication, such as reacting too fast and writing ‘accidental emails’, were also mentioned. Worth sharing is hitting the ‘reply all’ button with sensitive information included and the consequences of dealing with such mistakes. Aside from this, the selection of words in day-to-day communication has been cited as an example.
‘I was not aware of how important wording is and how seriously an initiative can be taken within the organisation. The solution was simple, just avoid using some words to describe the initiative which others may feel is their territory…’
Another respondent, as a solution, suggested: ‘read the email from the perspective of the recipient before sending it.’ This becomes more complicated and sensitive when dealing with colleagues with different cultural backgrounds where well-intentioned, critical comments made openly can be taken as personal attacks – losing face. Yet some saw this as positive if done in a more constructive and sometimes mutual way.
Oops moments in partnerships
Frank conversations about unforeseen obstacles and dashed expectations, despite careful assessments before working with partners, were also included in the responses:
‘We entered a cooperation [with a partner] with high expectations on bringing a big change…. This did not happen…we overestimated the interest and capacities of [our partners]… they were simply not capable of being engaged in a more complex intervention, and they simply did not think it was worth it as there was much easier money to get elsewhere (from other donors).’
This was supported by a respondent who was discouraged by the lost opportunity in partnership: ‘after a few months and about 3,000 Francs of support for events that did little to achieve our goals of improving voice to advocate for the changes we wanted to see, we ended the partnership and moved on.’ Two colleagues took such oops moment as part of being ‘deceived’ by partners who ‘had their own clientelistic game going on “behind the curtains” and manipulating data to achieve targets… and donors’ fund feeding [such] clientelism’.
Oops moments in taking perceptions for granted
‘I thought everyone in the organisation would agree with this idea’, replied several colleagues. This, however, was just expectation that they took for granted. In a multicultural working environment, such perceptions seemed to happen quite often. They took issues around them in their own unique way and acted according to their interpretations.
All agreed that perception is not passive and it can be shaped by our learning, both at the individual and organisational levels. By asking colleagues about feedback including oops moments:
‘I realised different perceptions in how I conduct my work: my own perception vs that of my colleagues. To some extent I underestimated myself and received more positive feedback than I expected. On the other hand, it also opened up new things that I have not been so much aware of: talk less and listen more, do not lecture, try and understand more before making judgments…’
Did colleagues take failure as a ‘badge of honour’? In part two of the blog post, we will write about if colleagues shared their oops moments with others. We will also discuss the importance of cultivating organisational culture for the purpose of linking ‘oops’ moments to ‘wow’ moments to make individual experiences more valuable. After all, learning and innovation is helped or hindered by the surrounding system.
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.