Airing our Dirty Laundry – Creating an open and supportive atmosphere for reflecting on failure

Please scroll to the bottom of this page to view and download resources from the event.

Confronting failure head-on in order to learn important lessons without focussing on individual blame is challenging in many sectors. However, it could be argued that in the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector, there is both a lack of time and incentive to reflect on what has gone wrong. Instead, there is an overriding inclination to focus on what has worked and on presenting a sanitised and straightforward version of the difficult work VCSE sector organisations are doing. Nevertheless, a focus on the more important question of how a project was made to work would shed light on adjustments that had to be made along the way in response to things that did not work or go to plan. Glossing over the difficulties and failures that are often entailed in successful projects prevents learning and the wider sharing of that learning.

In light of this, GMCVO, in collaboration with five members of the Greater Manchester Third Sector Research Network* and funded by the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN), organised the event “Learning from Failure – Airing our Dirty Laundry”. The aim was to create a space where volunteers and staff from the VCSE could freely share stories about their failures and what they learned from them – a protective, trustful and safe environment where experiences and knowledge about learning from failure could be exchanged. Key in achieving this were three aspects: careful planning and curation, working together to cultivate an open and supportive atmosphere, and creating opportunities for discussion and reflection.

A lot of thought and discussions went into the planning of the event, as the organising group considered what we ourselves meant by failure and consequently what our own expectations of an event about failure would be. We ultimately settled on storytelling as an organising principle for the event, because stories are a way of, firstly, making sense of one’s experience, and, secondly, sharing that experience. We wanted attendees to come away from the event having a better sense of how to tell stories about failure. Therefore, much of the preparatory work concerned the recruitment of speakers who could tell their own failure stories. We achieved this partly through advertising a “Call for Storytellers” and partly through directly approaching selected individuals whom we expected to have a good story to tell. By doing this, we managed to attract a diversity of speakers and ensured that the stories covered a wide spectrum of failure.

We wanted to ensure that we did not only talk about learning from failure, but also provided delegates with some practical tools for learning from failure. Therefore, we planned for some more traditional presentations that covered conceptualising failure as a concept, peer evaluation, as well as two funder perspectives on the notion of failure. The former provided a framing of the topic of the day in regards to the definition of failure and solutions offered by research. The latter discussed – in two very diverse ways – how funders would wish to be involved and consulted when a funded project is taking a wrong direction. The Q&A session that followed was very lively. The group discussed the different qualities and degrees of failure, the blurred borders between failure and fraud from the point of view of the funders, trust and responsibility, shaming and blaming. Overall, the day was divided into activities that addressed various aspects of the topic, required different levels of attention and activity, and appealed to different senses and learning styles.

We recognised that people do take failure personally and that there are feelings of shame around getting it wrong. Therefore, it was important to create an atmosphere that was not about shaming, blaming and re-experiencing negative emotions from the past. We achieved this by adding a playful twist to the event. From the outset, this was signalled by branding all publicity about the event with a whimsical picture of a washing line. This theme was followed through in the decoration of the venue on the day. Laundry lines with tiny wooden pegs stretched across the room. Participants jotted down their notes and ideas during the different activities of the workshop on colourful t-shirt-shaped sticky notes and hung them on the lines.

The day kicked off with the seven storytellers’ failure stories. The storytelling mode was quite effective at captivating people’s interest and sparking curiosity about the topic. During this session you could have heard a pin drop, as delegates were listening intently and visibly impressed by their peers’ experiences. We were very impressed how much ground people were able to cover in a short 5-minute story. The stories set the tone for the event overall. They affected each other and other speakers, some of whom said that they had adapted their stories and presentations to be more candid than planned as a result of listening to someone else’s story. Although these stories all dealt with failure in different guises, e.g. misjudging the demand for new projects, placing unsustainable workloads on staff, underestimating the time required for co-production, their brevity and the way they were delivered enabled a somewhat humorous tone and atmosphere. Subsequently, this light-heartedness was reinforced by asking the participants to note their ideas and impressions about the talks on the little t-shirts and hang them on the lines – something that was fun and a little bit silly to lighten everyone’s mood.

The stories were important in other ways. Because they were told by peers of those who attended the event and storytellers were only given the platform for five minutes each, they had an equalising effect. Attendees saw the storytellers as one of them without perceiving the usual hierarchy that is entailed by someone presenting and others listening. The fact that speakers reflecting on failure included two from GMCVO underlined the idea that GMCVO did not only want others to address failure, but was prepared to walk the talk. 

We really wanted delegates to take part actively and leave the event with some useful thoughts and learning about failure. This is why we dedicated a significant amount of time to reflection, rather than using standard round-table discussions and feedback. After the failure stories session there was plenty of time for attendees to think of what they had heard, discuss this with each other and formulate some initial thoughts. At the end of the day we offered a second reflection session, which focussed on learning points and how to implement these in practice. To help participants to digest their observations from the day, they were asked to interview each other. Detailed instructions were given about how to carry on a conversation in pairs using a ‘dialogue interview’ format. Each person had ten minutes to ‘interview’ another person, taking the lead from them with regard to how the conversation developed, after which time the other person interviewed them in the same way. Afterwards, both were asked to jot their thoughts about what they learned and how they were going to apply that knowledge on some more of the t-shirts. Facilitators then used some of the comments to open up a broader discussion.

Participants reported having been encouraged by the event to seek a more pro-active relationship with funders in order to utilise it for mutual benefit and learning, rather than simply delivering a project and reporting about it. However, important questions were also raised about how too much focus on systems of processes in accounting for failure might bear the risk of detracting from the need to take personal responsibility. Finally and probably most importantly, attendees’ awareness was raised about the definition of success and failure and the fact that these are not universal categories, but are affected by power and hierarchy.

Overall, we were happy with how this workshop achieved our original goal to create an atmosphere that encouraged free discussion about one of the most difficult aspects of VCSE work. We will be looking at potential follow-up initiatives, perhaps focussing more on putting the learning from failure into practice. In the meantime, we have learned our own lessons about curating such an event. It is probably not exaggerated to say that we ourselves have learned a great deal about the many different meanings of failure – something that we may have underestimated. With hindsight, we might have focussed the event on a particular type of failure for example. Nevertheless, keeping it relatively open towards all sorts of stories about failure meant that a lot of ground was covered, from which it may be possible to focus further in future.

For more information about the Greater Manchester Third Sector Research Network, please visit here.

* The organising committee comprised Simon Armour, Manchester Metropolitan University; Melvin Bradley, Mental Health Independent Support; Katja Levy, Manchester China Institute; Susanne Martikke, GMCVO; Lucy North, GMCVO; Alexander Tan, AT Research; Hayley Trowbridge, People’s Voice Media

View and download our speakers' presentations from the day below. Other useful resources: 


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