A friend of mine posted this quote on his Facebook page (and even made it his profile picture). I told him then I was planning on writing a blog post about this concept. Fast forward to today and a conversation I had via twitter with Mallory Bower and Courtney O’Connell about how we don’t share our failures as easily as our triumphs…and that was enough to push this post out of the queue.
I have a saying that I’m quite fond of – “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough”. Playing it safe is easy…it’s comfortable. The environments we work in do not make it any easier. Success is measured through “A’s” – the word failure is equated with the big red F at the top of a paper. When we’re asked to compile our annual reports, it’s often framed as a list of our accomplishments. At the end of the day, it’s about what we achieved.
One time I heard an administrator say at a meeting “the way to make sure you don’t get thrown under the bus is to make sure you’re riding on it”. It wasn’t the most inspiring of messages, but it did set a tone. How often is that tone affirmed at our institutions? The people who get recognized and rewarded are those with longevity and who made the fewest waves. We celebrate those who hit the mark…but do we ever celebrate those who tried and didn’t?
Celebrating failure may seem counterintuitive. For those of us who preceded the much maligned “millennial generation” we often bristle at the thought of everyone getting a medal. But recognizing attempts, even those that failed, is different. When I started running, I heard the saying “you’re still lapping those who are sitting on the couch” over again. Being the fastest or the first wasn’t as important as just getting up and doing it, even if you spent most of your journey walking.
We can start by setting the tone in the offices we supervise. Don’t just publicly recognize the people who “won” – remember to also honor the work of those who tried something different; who tried to forge a new path or think differently, even if the result didn’t match the desired outcome. We also need to lead by example and be honest about our own mistakes. At our recent club fair, I handed out a simple one-question survey to those who attended. It asked attendees how they became aware of the event. I included all the different ways I publicized the program: flyers, digital signage, calendars distributed during welcome week, e-mail blasts, and Facebook posts. The almost universal response was that students heard about the event simply because they saw it while walking past. All of work I had done to publicize had failed to make a mark. I decided to share this data with my colleagues at a division meeting. While it made clear that my promotion did not work, there was a valuable lesson for my colleagues about how best to reach our intended audience.
We value our role as “educators” when working with our students. Yet when we, at best, ignore failures and, at worst, punish them, we lose an opportunity to educate our staff members. We also create a culture that discourages innovation because, if people fear being wrong, then they will fear trying something that might not earn them recognition. Many of history’s innovations came as a result of countless trial and error. We need to make sure our offices and institutions are laboratories and not factories. We need to balance the endless litany of “best practices” with “earnest attempts” because the lessons can be just as, if not more valuable. Imagine seeing the title of just one session at a conference have (after the colon of course) “a failed attempt at…”
I close with a quote from Mauro Porcini, The Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo, from this month’s issue of Fast Company:
It’s important to have a culture that doesn’t punish you if you make, eventually, a mistake. It’s part of the innovation process. I always joke, saying “What scientists call experiments, marketers call failures or mistakes