Why failure is fantastic

Last week the WonkComms team asked me to speak at an event about how to get stories into the media. I was given ten minutes to talk about how Change.org helps its users secure agenda setting coverage for their people-powered camapigns.

I happened to mention that I think media teams need to grow to love failure and that failure can be more instructive to how we work than success. Out of all the mind blowing insights in my talk (hah) this was the one that people wanted to talk about. The fact that people were so keen on this idea is in itself revealing about the the context in which we poor, beleaguered comms folk work.

I’ve always thought that being on the frontline of communicating the work of organisations carries an odd set of pressures. We find ourselves with responsibility for a final product over which we have little control. The best we can do is make conditions as perfect as possible and let nature take its course. It’s a lot like breeding pandas, as staff at Edinburgh Zoo will tell you.

The best way we’ll ever get it right is to learn from what we do. Learning from what goes well is all fine – and gleeful emails around offices about how much coverage you have secured are excellent for ego and morale – but what do they really teach us? Not as much as sending a set of regional releases out with inaccurate data in taught me, that’s for sure. The anonymous wonkcommer who had auto sent a release out which was actually embargoed for three months previous learned a lot from that experience, too.

At Change.org we do something called the Festival of Failure. It’s a fun informal session as part of wider catch up sessions where each member of the team is encouraged to chat about something that went wrong that week. It’s funny, cathartic and reminds us that it’s only work; that even the best of us get it wrong sometimes and, most importantly, it gives other people a chance to not make the same mistake.

Being open about failure is a real organisational strength. It implies that staff trust each other to get it right – but also that a culture exists in which it’s fine to experiment, get things wrong and improve. Screw ups have traditionally been a subject reserved for the post-work pint on Friday, but I honestly think it should have a role in the office too. Failure is very real and can be incredibly de-motivating if it’s not talked about. We should embrace it and make our work better in the long run because of it.

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One comment on “Why failure is fantastic
  1. […] claim, and a damn sight more dumb luck and hidden failure brushed under the carpet. There’s a lovely piece by John Coventry on failure over on Wonkcomms today that really struck a chord with […]

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