Learning from failure (and social entrepreneurship)

I attended a fascinating lunchtime seminar the other week. It's not often the words 'fascinating', 'lunchtime' and 'seminar' are used in juxtaposition, so thought I would share some of the key points from the session. It was called, Trial, Error and the Big Society though it was more 'trial, error and failure in the public policy sphere' in reality (it would appear you're actually not allowed to hold any event currently without the words Big + Society in the title…). Aubrey Fox, who has been working at the Young Foundation, was talking about the lessons from his work at the Center for Court Innovation, and his associated book Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure

Despite my lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system, Aubrey was thankfully making some points of more general relevance which I was able to make sense of. And I think there are some interesting lessons for both social entrepreneurs and those who support them. This is all in the context of "there is failure in anything you do" and "failure is difficult to talk about":

1) Failure is in the eye of the beholder: a binary view of pass/fail does not reflect the complexity of most project outcomes, nor the experiences of those taking part in it in some way; success looks different to different people, and so does failure

2) Working once doesn't mean it will work forever (or somewhere else): this is a fascinating one for us, because we franchise our model and are passionate about replication that works; but there are countless external factors beyond 'the model', and a constantly changing environment

3) Leadership is crucial: Aubrey made the interesting point that 'boring' leaders are better than 'heroic' leaders; it is also about different stages of leadership for different elements of a project….and how to achieve those leadership transitions (often a point of failure)

4) Work to close the gaps between policy + practice: still these two groups are not effective at working together (I know, shock!); but ways to avoid failure involve a two way street of nudging or incentivising or de-risking or facilitating policymakers to be more creative, and also training, supporting, developing practitioners to effectively run and sustain what they do and not to fall into the trap of…

5) …the 'seductive power of unrealistic expectations': another great phrase, and one that I've termed the risk of "overpromise and under-delivery"; actually, changing behaviours and cultural norms at an individual level (never mind organisational or system level) is very difficult; and there is an assumption (is this correct?) that "projects would not win (public) support with modest results"; but that is a short-term win rather than a long-term success outlook…..

Further points of interest were

– that the consequences for individual failure differ depending on the project or sector (i.e. it's fine for James Dyson to trial 550 different hoovers and throw them out, it's not the same with, say, young offenders)

– that structural leadership (of teams, of coalitions) with agreed analysis and measurement is important

– defining what success looks like too early can put a limit on ambition (aka "sometimes you need to hold your nerve")

– the burden of proof in the sector is often on the new, rather than the existing

– the value of "calculated candour" (a phrase I love), which speaks to the need to be open without being reckless, to being as straightforward as possible about what has worked and what hasn't; because openness builds trust, which builds credibility builds support….

– areas ripe for innovation might be those where the risk (and cost) of the status quo is higher than the risk (and cost) of innovation

– couple of interesting questions; one that doesn't get asked (what is your expected failure rate?) and one that was difficult to answer (what is the motivation for individuals to take risks and to admit failures?)

At that point, brain expanded, and tried to come back to work…learning and failing, learning and failing.

[hat-tip as ever to the wonderful Indexed blog for the image; buy the postcard book via the site!]

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