Failing better

Published in Features on 7 Apr 2015

I’ve been talking a lot about failure recently. We know that risk and failure are central components of innovation. Indeed, it’s been claimed that “success can breed failure by hindering learning at both the individual and the organisational level” (Gino and Pisano, 2011).

So, I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that we need to share our experiences of failure as well as our success stories.

It isn’t easy though, is it? Particularly in the public sector. Failure is news. It generates controversy, particularly about who was responsible.

Well, I’ve had a bit of realisation. It’s all very well me asking colleagues to be more open and honest about where things haven’t gone so well. But when have I talked about my failures? I should be leading by example. As Gayle challenged us in an earlier Creative Bite, I need to own and share my mistakes and failures.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I find failure hard to deal with. But, I’ve made some proper, full-on, ‘slap-on-the-forehead’ mistakes over the years. And it’s true that those failures have inspired better reflection – prompting me to ask myself difficult questions – than my ‘successes’.

And with a bit of distance, I’ve been able to turn even the worst of those failures into funny stories that I can relate in polite company without coming out in hives or bursting into tears.

So *deep breath* here are some things I’ve failed at. And some things I’ve learned from those failures.

  • My O Grade Maths prelim. The first time I’d ever failed an exam - I’d been used to passing exams with relative ease. It shook me up sufficiently that I took revision a bit more seriously and haven’t failed one since!
  • Learning to code. I’ve tried several times and just can’t get to grips with anything more complex than html. I’m determined not to let it beat me though, and it’s important enough to me to keep trying.
  • Learning to drive. I gave up after failing my test twice and accepting that I just wasn’t cut out to be behind the wheel of a car. It wasn’t important enough to me to keep trying.
  • Getting several jobs that I really wanted. I’ve learned a lot of about job interview techniques over the years. And I’ve learned to treat every unsuccessful interview as practice, not the end of the world.
  • Growing vegetables. Every spring I have the same good intentions. And every spring, nothing gets planted. This year I’m attempting to be a bit more realistic about what I can actually achieve. So I’m planting a small herb garden.
  • Convincing senior colleagues that social media wasn’t a fad and had an important part to play in government work. They mostly get it now, but five or so years ago, they weren’t ready to hear it. I’ve learned that, sometimes, timing is everything.
  • Escaping the civil service. I got out once, but ended up going back. I learned that the grass isn’t always greener ;-)

In my next post, I’ll attempt to take this up a level and reflect in a bit more detail on a work project failure.


Gino, F. and Pisano, G. P. (2011). Why Leaders Don't Learn from Success. Harvard Business Review 89(4), pp. 68–74.