Failing doesn’t make you a failure

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

At a recent meeting I heard someone say that “in the public service failure is seen as failure, not a sign that you need to try something else” and it struck a chord with me. Given today is the International Day for Failure it seemed like a good time to ponder this further.

In the public service there is a very real aversion to failure. We can get very defensive about failure. We can try and frame failures as something else. We can ignore them or pretend they didn’t happen. It is very rare that we reflect on them or share them with our colleagues.

There are lots of reasons why this approach to failure might be the case in the public service, including:

  • a fear of media stories where failures are held up as examples of ineptness
  • a fear of senate estimates hearings and having failure being pored through by exacting questions
  • our investment in our identity as professionals, where our status and reputations are linked to what we know, what we have achieved and what we can do
  • an Australian culture that is (perceived to be) antagonistic towards failure.

But when it comes to innovation, an intolerance of failure is a pretty unfortunate attitude.

Innovation means that you don’t know what’s going to happen – if you do, it’s unlikely you’re doing something that innovative. And if you can’t be sure what’s going to happen, there’s a very good chance that something will not work as hoped, and that some will regard that as failure.

But as they say on the site for International Day for Failure “Without the possibility of failure there is no success, they go hand-in-hand. After all, failure means you have grabbed the opportunity to succeed.” If you haven’t failed, then you probably haven’t really tried doing something new (or you’re so supernaturally good at everything it must be awful knowing you).

Failure is a powerful teacher. You can learn a lot more from when something doesn’t work, than from when something goes smoothly. Failure is also a great way of learning how to deal with the unexpected, and how to adjust, to improvise, and to find alternatives when things aren’t working. Failing, then, is a core component of learning and doing. It is something we should … well, not cherish, but not be ashamed of either. Certainly there are bad failures or ‘blameworthy failures’ that we should and can avoid. But we need to distinguish between those and those that are a natural consequence of trying.

I can think of many ‘positive’ failures that I have had, where that experience has since helped me help others to avoid failure. Whether it be trying to embed a lasting ideas management system within our departmentparticipating in an experiment that didn’t end as I’d hoped, or trying to find a lasting mechanism to allow members of the Public Sector Innovation Network share experiences and questions (we’re still working on this one…), failure – things not going according to plan, rather than mistakes – has taught me an incredible amount. I think it has made me better at trying new things and made me a better public servant.

What about you?

Today is the day to share your failures. How have you failed and what did you learn from the experience? You could tell us, you could tell someone you work with, or you could tell the world at #dayforfailure, but whoever you tell, “One thing is for sure, you won’t be alone.”