Failure Gets a Rebrand

by Siri Agrell


It’s not often that someone asks you to write down all your past failures on a piece of paper. It’s even less likely that you decide to add your name to the list and post it publicly in a room of 500 people.

But this is what was asked of attendees at the inaugural Fail Forward conference in Toronto this week – a day exploring intelligent responses to screwing up.

Founded by Ashley Good, the conference was designed to encourage serious professional reflection about failure, and offered tangible tools and practices that companies can apply to strengthen their organization’s approach to making mistakes.

From where I sit, the current approach to this topic is fundamentally a failure of communications: We don’t talk about failure enough and when we do, we use the wrong words.

Companies that pride themselves on systemic approaches to hiring, promoting and executing their work rarely have a thoughtful mechanism to deal with internal failure. At my table – after we were asked to share a professional mistake – every single person said it was the first time they had talked about that experience and how it made them feel.

Finding a new approach to failure seems to be especially attractive to specific sectors: innovation, health care and non-profit organizations were highly represented at Fail Forward.

Dr. Brian Goldman, a physician and radio personality who delivered Fail Forward’s keynote address, noted that in health care, failure is articulated as either a “momentary lapse” or “incompetence.”

There is rarely, he said, a root cause analysis that can help individuals understand their mistake and avoid future ones. To really improve, Dr. Goldman added, we have to assume that everyone makes mistakes and talk about them in a direct, productive way.

This is starting to happen. In the US, a self-professed failure named Cass Phillipps founded FailCon, an annual conference focused on failure for those in the start-up space.

Here at home, Dr. Goldman has become a major voice for intelligent failure in health care, joined in his cause by Dr. Teodor Grantcharov, who has started using “black box” technology to record and learn from mistakes made during surgery.

Both men are using good old fashioned communication – lectures, video, books – to improve our approach to failure.

But the words we use in this new realm are vitally important. I met one young bureaucrat (and part-time entrepreneur) who has been advocating for “failure reports” within the federal government. These reports would be public, shareable and searchable, and would provide descriptions of a project-based failure written from the different points of view of those involved. His idea was met with support by his colleagues, but eventually shot down by senior officials who were probably uncomfortable with the idea of publicly documenting the internal failures of the Government of Canada.

In the UK, however, this idea has already been put into action. The British government does not call their process “failure reports” but “Retroactives,” an endlessly more palatable term for those in positions of power.

So maybe if we want to effectively rebrand failure within the workplace, we have to simply rename it first.