How do you survive failures in your work?

“Fail. Fail again. Fail better!” Samuel Beckett

Everyone loves success stories, but look around you: failure is everywhere.

Projects fail to deliver, collaborations collapse, systems fail to improve, organisations screw up, people blunder, policies fall short.

It can happen in small ways, on a daily basis. We plan something and it goes awry. It happens at large scale too. No matter how smart or knowledgeable you are, however well you plan, it’s impossible to go through life without things suddenly taking a turn for the worse at some point.

It is an uncomfortable subject.

Most people are reluctant to admit to failure. Social pressure tends to encourage us to pretend to be competent and unrealistically perfect. So we ignore failure, deny it, refuse to change, and things keep failing. Evidence of this dynamic can be found everyday in large systems such as:

Health and social care

Welfare is the safety net of society. Its failures are everywhere around us, but often are vested with narrative values that transcend its original socio-cultural substrate. A suicide, somebody giving up on a career to become a family care giver, a student drop out, a veteran affected by PTSD turning tramp, and so many others, are all ultimately failures of welfare. However, there is growing feeling of distrust towards this mechanism: after all also a Country’s coverage of maintenance costs for a royal palace is welfare, and with moralism infecting the very root of capital culture, welfare is cloaked in the guilt of dispersing resources on people who did not try hard enough, whose “personal resilience” were not worthy of surviving the healthy natural selection of the market. Arguably, welfare failure is often a larger failure of society, of its culture of cohesion and mutuality. Should we single out specific instances of a failing system? Should we fight the cultural drift that segregates a welfare system? Or should we redesign the safety nets to meet the end goals in ways that are acceptable within the new understanding of society that is spreading?

Development work 

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Financial markets 

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Cultural and creative industries 

We know cultural funding via grants is dying. Yet we keep banging our heads against the same wall. This makes it much harder to build self-sufficient, sustainable projects. We need new business models, but how can they permeate our cultural habits, legal frameworks and use of technology in order to reward and be perceived fair by producers, multipliers and consumers of culture alike?

Reception of Refugees and Migrants

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…and these are just the ones we could come up with top of mind.

So what can we do?

In an ideal world, we acknowledge failure, we talk about it, we learn from it and then implement what we have learned. We get better or get different…. Nassim Taleb’s marvelous book “Black Swan” describes unpredictable events of large magnitude and consequence. He suggests that, since you can’t predict black swan events, a better approach is to build robustness against negative ones that occur and be able to exploit positive ones. This means accepting and preparing for failure as a part of doing, well, anything.

Setting up a new project or business venture, challenging a large institution to take on a new approach towards policy-making, lobbying an institutional funder to rethink their strategy or getting a government to fix broken policies is setting yourself up to fail. Because the outcomes of our efforts are often unpredictable- especially if we are navigating complex adaptive systems (like the economy). If you are determined enough to keep at anything long enough, you will eventually have some successes. But how do you survive the failures on the path to getting there?

Better together.

We hereby send out a rallying cry - failures of the world, unite!  Sharing both successes and failures with others can help to limit the damage, help us learn, make us braver.

There is something liberating about accepting the worst scenario as a possible outcome of any new endeavor…and then just going ahead and doing it anyway.

We are not starting from scratch: Edgeryders has some experience in pioneering new ways of cat-herding large numbers of individuals to collaboratively make sense of challenging topics. Our annual community gatherings, Living On The Edge, are built by participants as knowledge engines. We meet, think, learn and have fun together while collectively building valuable relationships and knowledge…as well as setting the foundations for new collaborations and projects to emerge. Everyone is welcome to contribute what they can and every contribution is valued. Whether it is running a session, making a video or baking a cake.

We hereby convene an international gathering on the theme of failures. We believe the ability to come together to fail forward in an unstable context is a key skill for surviving and thriving in the future. The gathering is meant as a locus to exchange information and practical knowledge on how we can put the stock of underutilised knowledge from recognising and dealing with failures to a better use. We are already in deep conversation with many people and groups working in health and social care, development, cultural and creative industries as well as in finance. More info here:

This post is being written collaboratively by:

Patrick Andrews, Nadia EL-Imam, Noemi Salantiu, Matteo Uzzugoni, Marco Manca…and you!