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Podcast: Learning From Failure - An Expert's Guide

In 2010, Canadian ASHLEY GOOD launched the world's first ever 'Failure Consultancy'. It's called Fail Forward and it helps people and organisations to use failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. In this new episode of our How To Build Community podcast and radio show, she shares her top stories, tools and tips to help you "fail intelligently" in your life, work and community.

Ashley was working in northern Ghana when the idea for Fail Forward came to her. Ashley noticed that her team were good at discussing the flaws in the project they were working on – apart from when a high-up evaluator came to ask how it was going. She found this frustrating, but saw that it was because there was no incentive to admit something wasn’t working. In fact, “there are a lot of incentives not to be the troublemaker”.

When she went home to Toronto, Ashley began to see this dynamic playing out everywhere. “It was like I couldn't actually see any other way of looking at problems, other than this unhealthy relationship with failure that we were fostering in our organisations.” So she started Fail Forward, who now help many non-profits, governments, and private companies.

Ashley doesn’t talk about “embracing” or “celebrating” failures. She recognises that this can be an inappropriate response when someone is facing a distressing professional failure. Instead, the aim is to avoid a defensive response – the instinct to “beat ourselves up, blame others, try to move on as quickly as possible or fix it before anyone notices” – and instead to look at the failure directly. “It's easy to say, very hard to do, but that's the shift - to a space to say 'actually I can grow stronger and wiser from this'.”

Leaders have a particularly important role in making this change. “The people around us, and especially our bosses, have a huge influence on whether we're going to speak up and talk about our failure.” When leaders themselves feel stressed or that they might be failing, but don’t openly acknowledge it, “that's when otherwise great leaders do and say things that destroy their team's courage.”

Ashley has advice for relationships between organisations and funders. She says that lots of funders might be open to conversations about failure, so that there’s no need to be dishonest about how things are going. Practically this might mean setting expectations of learning, and budgeting a buffer to adapt the project if needed. “Fund learning throughout the project, not just at the end when you write the report”.

We asked for Ashley’s tips on producing a "failure report". She reminded us that it’s unlikely to lose support: “no one to my knowledge has ever lost a single dollar because they talked about their failures openly”. But many people talk about failures badly: they tend to blame other people and factors, even when they don’t mean to. Ashley’s rule is never to blame someone without asking them to co-author their perspective. Then, even if the report never gets published, “it’s that conversation that matters”.

To start to fail intelligently, we should start in our workplace. “Someone right now, on your team, is probably struggling with something. Instead of flagging it, or asking for help, they’re maintaining the belief that failure is not an option.” If that person is you, say so: speak up, ask for help. If it’s someone else, approach them and offer your help. “Kill that myth that everything needs to be perfect. Admit when you're not doing well and make it okay for others to do the same.”

A metaphor is often the best way to describe Ashley’s work. Kintsukuroi is a Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold. Instead of hiding the piece’s failures – its cracks – the cracks are what make it more beautiful. “And I fundamentally believe that it is always, always possible in times of failure to repair with gold. It's not guaranteed, it's really hard, but it is always possible to repair with gold and come out the other side wiser and stronger for having been broken.”

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