Advocacy, Inquiry and Meaningful Conversation at Work
What Are the "Big" Career and Professional Development Questions We Need to Be Asking?

Taking Risks, Celebrating Failure and Reflective Practice

Earlier this week I was  honored to do an online presentation for educators in Australia on reflective practice as part of the Sidney Institute's online course, Designing for Flexibility. Their topic was "taking risks and celebrating failures" but it really ended up being a conversation about key aspects of the reflective process, as well as some ideas for strategies to try out.  I also set up a page of follow-up links here.  (EDITED 12/15/11--Here's the link to the actual presentation in Adobe Connect)

Serendipitously, yesterday Beth Kanter pointed me to an article in the Harvard Business Review,"Why I Hire People Who Fail." (Note--Beth is also curating a on Failure and Learning--great stuff!)

In the HBR article, Jeff Stibel shares one of the strategies he uses to encourage risk-taking and learning from failure in his company--a Failure Wall

. . . we started by collecting inspirational quotes about failure. Among my favorites:

  • "Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." – Winston Churchill
  • "I have not failed, I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work." – Thomas Edison
  • "Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life." – Sophia Loren

One random Thursday night, I returned to our corporate headquarters afterhours with a bottle of wine and a box of acrylic paints. My assistant and I used stencils to paint about three dozen such quotes onto a large white wall in our break room. As first time stencilers, this project itself seemed destined to end up a byline on the (slightly gloppy) failure wall until we gratefully accepted some much-needed painting assistance from my wife.

After we finished painting around 1:00AM, we fastened a dozen Sharpies to the wall alongside these simple instructions: (1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name. To set the tone, I listed three of my own most memorable (and humbling) failures.

In the beginning, the wall was met with surprise, curiosity and a bit of trepidation. We didn't ask anyone to contribute and we didn't tell people why it was there, but the wall quickly filled up. Some of the entries are life lessons: "After 7 years of practicing, I quit playing violin in high school to fit in. Lesson learned — who cares what other people think." Some are financial mishaps: "I thought buying Yahoo at $485 a share was a good idea." Many are self-deprecating: "My successful failure is working in online marketing when I came to LA to work in showbiz." Some are more than a little amusing: "I thought it was spelled 'fale.'"

This is a powerful way to do public/collective reflection on a key theme. How awesome would it be if workplaces had a new wall, new theme every month? I also think that a Fail Wall would be a great addition to a FailFaire

One reason I enjoy doing presentations like this webinar on reflective practice is because the process of putting information together for an audience forces me to take another look at things, bring in new resources and then engage in conversation with people on what I share. The act of preparing and presenting becomes a form of reflection that's valuable to me. In fact, from that session, new ideas are bubbling to the surface that I think I can further develop and build upon. Stay tuned for those.




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I really enjoyed the slides and the post. I try to live up to the idea that if we aren't failing sometimes then we aren't stretching ourselves enough. I have this quote hanging in my office:
I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Michael Jordan

Thanks, Jean. I agree that if we aren't failing sometimes, then we aren't stretching ourselves enough. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, feeling like I'm failing in smaller things, but not doing the "big fails" that I think are really about stretching and taking risks. This is something I want to start addressing, I think.

This is a great article, and a great topic to explore. Thanks for sharing.

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