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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Social entrepreneurs in Fife: Tracey, Frankie, Alfie and Kathleen

FifeDartington It’s been a great and amazing couple of days, reaffirming why I love working in this field, and what it can achieve. Wednesday included a ‘webinar’ on using social media with Fellows dialling in from across the UK and Australia, which went well despite the expected digital glitches; and also a session with one of the new London programmes (see who are on the Block and Weekly programmes here; profiles are gradually being filled in!) on problem tree analysis….which is more interesting and practically useful than it might sound.

Today, I was invited to attend and speak at the SSE Fife graduation of their latest programme, under the banner Motivate to Innovate. Fife was our first SSE franchise, and BRAG, where it’s based, have been a trusted, committed, supportive and, at times, forgiving partner. What John, Dodie, Callum (in picture, left, with several of Fife programme) and, especially, Tracey have achieved over the years in Lochgelly, Fife, and now across other parts of Scotland, is incredibly impressive. They themselves have demonstrated so many of the characteristics the graduating students spoke about today: resilience, support, drive, persistence, commitment, determination, resourcefulness.

The social entrepreneurs graduating today were a typical SSE mix of projects, ages, genders and backgrounds; do check them out. They each spoke about the importance of the support of their peers, and of other networks they tapped into; of how this was a journey of confidence and self-awareness and belief as well as skills and knowledge; and of how hard it was, but also how rewarding. Or as Lorna, one of the new Fellows, put it, “It’s been tough; but worth it”. There were tears, laughter and a great deal of inspiration at the event today.

I also caught up with Frankie, SSE Fellow and Executive Director of Recycle Fife. He came in to support these newest Fellows, and told me that things are going well, with almost 40 staff now working at the organisation, and several potential new eco-developments coming up: he’s got countless great ideas, but he’s also proven he and the RF team can implement them. He also pointed out to me that their success is as much about the people they work with, train, and employ as it is the environmental benefits (around 1120 customers; diverts around 180 tonnes per month from landfill). He talked to me about a guy called Alfie who is now working in his first ever job, aged 48, at Recycle Fife; at first, they didn’t have the money to take him on, so he volunteered for 11 months, worked with the organisation on some of the things that had been a barrier in the past, and is now a few months into gainful employment. You can fill in the blanks on the change that brings in someone’s life.

I will finish by briefly mentioning Kathleen, one of the social entrepreneurs who graduated today. She outlined the challenges and traumas in her background, the things she had overcome, and the journey she and her kids had been on over the last 8 or 9 years. Having gone back through education, rebuilt her home life, retrained, and re-oriented herself, she is now committed to supporting and helping others: setting up an organisation that provides therapies for those going through similar experiences. I can’t really get across how powerful her presentation was, how impressive her journey is, or how the room was hanging on her every word; suffice to say that she had to ask for tissues half way through, and there were plenty of other less-than-dry eyes.

I come away inspired and humbled. As I said to the new Fellows, I’ve attended a few events recently where a mixture of management consultants, venture capitalists, MBA students and politicians have propounded their views on why social enterprise and social entrepreneurs are important, and setting forth their views on what all this stuff is about. I'm glad those conversations are happening. But today reaffirmed that, for me at least, it is at its heart about people. People like Tracey, Frankie, Alfie and Kathleen.

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The real deal social entrepreneurs in Yorkshire

Great to go and visit our Yorkshire and Humber SSE today, and not just because East Coast trains do free wi-fi (hooray)…but also much more importantly to get a catch-up on how the first programme is going up there, and to meet with three current students currently being supported.
What was great for me was that the relatively dry, formal points I had been making in the first part of the conversation were vividly brought to life by the real examples the social entrepreneurs brought up as they spoke. Here’s some examples of what I mean.

1) Formal version (me): “Social entrepreneurs build trusted relationships, form partnerships and gain practically useful contacts as a result of being together on the programme”

Real-world: John, who’s working on a project to build trust and improve relationships between neighbours, is now working with two other Y+H SSE students (Jay and Justine: there must be some sort of J cubed or 3J name in the offing) whose work complements his. Namely, a platform is built to get neighbours interacting (by John); recycled PCs (from Jay) enable people to get online more easily; and video stories (by Justine) provide content and evaluation material to demonstrate impact. As John put it, this makes it more of a package that has more value and is easier to sell.

2) Formal version (me again): “SSE gives them the time and space to reflect on what they are doing, in a trusted environment with like-minded people”

Real-world: Mani was talking about how his hip-hop empowerment work in schools had really taken off, and that he was massively busy in the day-to-day. He said that the SSE ‘forced’ him to take a step back, think about what he might have missed or forgotten, and bounce ideas / problems off other people. Otherwise he would have carried on going continuously at 100 mph.

3) Formal version (guess who): “The 18-20 students come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and bring a varied range of experiences, networks, information and skills to the group”

Real world: Chris, who’s just won a couple of awards (see here for more on him and Mani winning awards), and works on fuel poverty and eco-efficiency with housing associations was talking about how he came very much from a commercial business background. It was a chance meeting that led him into the world of social and ethical business, and he’d joined the SSE partly to get “a bit more of the social bit of social entrepreneur”. He added that he’d learned a great deal from people in the group, who he might otherwise never have met or taken time with.

Pleasure to see them and learn a great deal from them too.

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