How a FLABulous idea could help overcome fears of failure in the Welsh public sector

Last year, CPI UK collaborated with Y Lab, the public services innovation lab for Wales, to host ‘SPARKing Impact’. In this interactive workshop, we aimed to build more supportive relationships for changemakers in Wales and challenge structural barriers. Numerous bold ideas emerged, but ‘learning from failure’ arose continuously. Given our North America team across the pond are leading a research program around Failing Forward, we were keen to unpack this theme in Wales. Though more research is needed in this space, the workshop provides early evidence that there is a desire amongst some in the Welsh government to reinvent attitudes towards and understanding of ‘failure’ in government.

Visual notetaker, Laura Sorvala, summarising findings from SPARKing Impact

One group, who called themselves the ‘FLAB4’, came up with a ‘failure lab’ (FLAB): an experimental environment with the belief that failure is inevitable when addressing complex problems. The purpose of the FLAB would be to create a supportive setting for people to learn from failure, leading to creativity, innovation and positive outcomes for citizens. To understand why there is such a need for a ‘failure lab’ in Wales, I decided to probe the FLAB4 to discover how they think it could be beneficial to those working in public services to achieve better outcomes.

Fear of failure in the Welsh public sector

My conversations with the FLAB4 illuminated that one of the main challenges Welsh public services face is breaking what they called the ‘circle of failure’. Their own experiences in the public sector revealed that, because fear prevails in the current system, services can become stuck. People fear that things will go wrong, and fear discussions about how things have not gone to plan. This inability to be open about what could have gone better impedes the critical learning from failure that helps to prevent the same mistakes occurring over and over again. The group describes:

Failure represents the inability to deliver on a vision for the future, long-term or more immediate, of failing to manage the risks and issues. It’s this definition of failure that is endemic within public services, not one rooted in using failure to better understand the problem at hand, and the types of solutions that might deliver a successful outcome.

FLAB4 member Ruth Jordan, the Head of Improvement and Implementation at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, states that those working in healthcare, much like in fire and rescue services, and local authorities, are conscious: “Whatever they do, there is another person at the end of it whose safety could be impacted by decisions they make.” This makes overcoming fear of failure all the more difficult. Constantly working with caution, public servants are so risk-averse that there leaves no room for changes born from mistakes. Risk aversion also often prevents great ideas from seeing the light of day, stifling innovation and improvement.

Ruth expands that “people often come into the public sector because it meets with their value sets of helping people and wanting to make the world a better place. It feels like it goes against these values if we say that we are happy to fail.”

The value of failure

However, what if the messaging around failure were to change? What if, instead of being risk-averse and viewing failure as ‘going against values’, people were ‘failing fast and failing forward for better public services’? This was the group’s tagline for FLAB, and a principle they perceived “might result in new approaches to testing at a smaller, less risky scale, but with a greater emphasis on failing, at each stage giving an opportunity to build our understanding of the problem at hand.”

After successful work, people often continue ‘business as usual’ without reviewing the project and reflecting on what they have learned. After failing, reflection is almost always needed as people seek better understanding of the problem in order to find new, improved approaches. Sophie Jones, an Impact and Innovation Officer at Cardiff University who previously worked in the public sector, thinks that “people who experience failure and then overcome it, end up far more prepared and better equipped at dealing with future situations.” She believes that failure is not only “a great teacher in learning your own personal limitations, figuring out how to do better next time”, but can also “lead to a massive breakthrough; if it doesn’t work once it can work the next time or work differently but in a more positive way”. Hence, taking risks could potentially pay-off better in the long run. Sophie found that: 

knowledge gained from success was often short-lived, while knowledge from failure will stick around for years.

In a working environment that encourages people to become open and transparent about how they have failed and what they have learned as a result, blame-culture can be deterred. Everyone is accountable, and seeing failure as a “path for redirection” that enables “clarity on everywhere you have gone wrong, and how to take a better path next time” can remove fears of the potential consequences of failure.

What a Failure Lab could do

Dr Jennifer Geroni, Director of Environment Platform Wales and another member of the FLAB4, stated that “we learn so much from failure, which is why it is important to give people a safe space to try new ideas. By adopting more of a design process, you encourage creative thinking and rapid idea generation. FLAB would be a space to test ideas and sort the good from bad. Having a range of approaches to choose from is likely to lead to better outcomes and more success in the long term, but you can’t get there without going through the initial process of sifting.” This learning space can be “an ideal place to ideate, prototype, and test new ways of working to de-risk them before trialling in the real world.”

A FLAB could become particularly useful when considering that the public sector offers many services where people’s lives are at stake, and is using public funds to deliver better wellbeing. The FLAB4 argues that “it is important to understand where public services can and are able to take a greater appetite for risk. Within the environment of a lab, the rules and appetite around risk are explicit. The impacts of failure are managed differently in this context.”

Left to right: Ruth, Jennifer and Sophie of the FLAB4 at SPARKing Impact

One of the services of FLAB could be training on learning from failure, Sophie suggests. This could boost workplace morale, and teach people important skills. She highlights that “if you’re good at falling down and getting back up, you’ll be confident going into new situations because you know you’ll be okay no matter what happens.”

Meanwhile, others wonder whether changing the meaning of failure, or calling it ‘testing’ or ‘hypothecating’ might help overcome negative feelings around it. A BBC study on the cost to the public purse in pursuit of defending failure is a notable example of this fresh perspective. Taking a more agile and user-centred approach to service design and delivery would help to shift the focus from a preconceived solution that is based on a limited, one-dimensional knowledge base, to an approach that recognises that each iteration gives you another piece of the puzzle.

The group state:

Talk in the public sector has been around promoting innovation, but less about failing. These two come hand in hand, they are both sides of the same coin.

Experimentation & continuous learning

Experimentation and continuous learning are “all part of the same cycle”, Jennifer states. “The whole point of experimenting is that you don’t know what the outcome will be. Everytime you experiment you should learn something new from the outcome. If it fails, you learn not to do that again. By not recording and admitting failure, we are doomed to repeat it because we have not learned the lesson. Sharing learning from failure is equally if not more important than sharing learning from success.”

Sophie proposes that in a lab environment, “organisations could launch two or more projects with the same goal, and send teams in different directions simultaneously. This way, they can learn from the best outcomes and combine it into one. Nobody can develop a breakthrough product or process if they’re not willing to encourage risk-taking and learn from subsequent mistakes. It should be built into a programme that can be sustained and carried on for years.”

In order to truly learn, the FLAB4 emphasises that recording and sharing learning is key.

It is all well and good ensuring that we learn from failure, but if nothing is done with that experience then others will continue to make the same mistakes.

Ruth believes that even if those who fail don’t develop solutions themselves, sharing what happened could result in others in the wider community of practice reaching better outcomes that could benefit services. Speaking to others within the same field to share best practice is vital to learn from one another.

Culture & leadership

The FLAB4 also believe that culture plays a significant role in encouraging people to be vocal about failures. In the current system, people sometimes choose to say or do what they think people want to hear rather than the truth, fearing miscommunication and bad press. Ruth believes that “in a sense, culture is driven by leadership. [Leaders] need to be purposeful, and ensure that actions follow statements when driving culture and values that they say they have.” If leaders are risk-averse, the organisation will be risk-averse.

To overcome this, Sophie suggests introducing ‘failure-tolerant leaders’ who not only accept failure, but encourage and celebrate it. By engaging at a personal level with people they lead, and openly admitting their own mistakes, leaders can break down social and bureaucratic barriers, and root out destructive competitiveness. She describes how “failure-tolerant leaders identify mistakes and support others to use them as learning curves.” This can create a culture of ‘intelligent risk-taking’ that leads to sustained innovation. The FLAB4 cite Paul Matthews, the Chief Executive at Monmouthshire County Council, as an example of a failure-tolerant leader; “through words and deeds, he gives permission for employees to fail when they are trying to innovate.”

The role of Welsh Government

The concept of FLAB could provide unimaginable possibilities for creating meaningful changes in the public sector. However, in order for this to become reality, the group suggests that Welsh Government would have to play a leading role in bringing FLAB to life. Ruth states:

Behaviours in the public sector are largely driven by requests from Welsh Government, meaning that if we are truly going to move into a scenario where failure to learn is deemed acceptable, it has to be driven by the government.

With Wales being such a small country, everything is closely aligned. This means ripple effects easily impact various sectors. Ruth continues that the government “have to promote the messaging around ‘it’s okay to fail’, as it will need a ripple effect from them, down to organisations, to genuinely create social change. If we try to do things through the side and nothing in government changes, nothing wider changes in the system.”

Jennifer makes similar points; “FLAB needs to be seen as an integral part of developing new services. Something that is funded and endorsed from the top down. If it is not fully supported by Welsh Government, then local funding for participation in FLAB may itself be seen as an unacceptable financial risk. You would then be relying on innovative leaders in the public sector, rather than facilitating sector-wide cultural change.”

Emerging findings on how to fail well

FLAB aims to overcome fears by reinventing failure as something to aim for, learn from, share and celebrate. Failure can be considered an untapped source of skills, relationships and most importantly, innovation.

In true FLAB fashion, I asked the FLAB4 to share advice to others in the public sector about how to fail well, in the hopes that this will inform the way in which services recognise failure.

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We are excited that this theme of Failing Forward is emerging in governments from different parts of the world. We are still in the early phases of our research, but we are very grateful to partners like Sophie Jones, Ruth Jordan and Jennifer Geroni for being #FLABulous and contributing to our emerging understanding.