Friday 18 October 2013

Blogging about failure

Something I've been thinking about recently - and a stimulating conversation with Andrew Derrington brought it back to mind today - is sharing reflections about failure.

I am a great believer that we can learn a lot from things going wrong. Many years ago, I used to convene meetings of AMED in the North East. Far and away the most successful meeting I can remember was one where we invited members to share their greatest training disasters.

To their credit, members rose to the challenge, and we heard some hilarious stories; and there was a high degree of resonance: in most cases, we agreed, we had all been there. And in discussing our disasters, and each others' perceptions of where things had gone wrong, we all learned a great deal.

So I would like to blog about failures I have had; but there are a few problems.

One is that I don't have that many. That's not a problem in other contexts, of course, but if I want to blog about failures, it would be useful to have a few to choose from.

The second, and related to the first, is that the one or two things that have gone wrong still hurt, even though they may be some time ago.  Moreover, and this is the point, they may still be sore for my client; and that brings me to the most difficult issue. These are not just my stories: others are involved, and almost inevitably, if I am to reflect honestly on them, that may involve criticism of them.

Of course, I can anonymise them, and change details, etc to protect people or organisations from being identified, but my fear then is that other clients may think I am writing about them, and viewing as a failure something they (and indeed I) don't see as one...

The other concern, of course, is that by writing publicly about my failures, I may put off current or prospective clients  or collaborators.  However, I think  any client who wants to work with someone who claims never to have got anything wrong is probably not a client I'd want to work with, so I think I can take that risk.

So... (deep breath) here goes. No1 in a (very) occasional series.

Some time ago, a former boss - let's call him Paul - in an organisation I'd worked in, and who knew I was interested in writing, took me out for lunch at a Greek restaurant.

To be honest, I  was flattered. I had only set up the business a short while previously, and was naturally keen for new business. So after a few retsinas, Paul broached the business part of the conversation. There was a need to train managers in the organisation to write more clearly and succinctly. So he had commissioned a specialist consultancy to develop an Authorship Skills programme. Now he needed someone to deliver the programme. Here he laid on the flattery a bit, saying that the specialists had developed a great programme, but he wasn't convinced their training skills were anything like as good as mine; though they were cheap.  So if I were prepared to match their price (which was lower than my day rate) the work was mine.

It was, he assured me, a way back in to working for the organisation, and in future, naturally, they would pay my usual rates, but on this occasion... And then there was the volume of work...

So I ended up running poorly-designed workshops for managers who didn't want to be there, and felt patronised to boot, for cut rates, in an area that was outside my core competence.  Unsurprisingly, I didn't enjoy these, I don't think they really addressed the issue, and I was never invited back to do any other work for that organisation.

But I learned a number of valuable lessons, early in my freelance career:

  • Don't drink when negotiating a contract
  • Don't drink with clients you don't really trust
  • Don't listen to flattery
  • Don't say yes immediately to things you are unsure of - take the time to reflect
  • Don't cut price for the promise of future business
  • Don't agree to run programmes designed by someone else sight unseen (though I have breached that since, which may be the subject of the next in this series)
  • Don't work outside your core expertise without explicitly discussing that with your client
  • Don't assume your client has undertaken good (or indeed any) diagnosis
  • Don't agree to sheep-dip programmes where everyone is compelled to attend regardless of need

The last two points underpin most of the rest, in this instance: these workshops were always going to be tough, because the need they addressed was ill-defined, only perceived by some senior people, and not recognised by the victims of the process.

What brought all this back to my mind was hearing about Andrew Derrington's workshops, targetted at academics writing research proposals.  Here the need is specific, identified and acknowledged; and Andrew clearly has the expertise and experience to deliver them.

The contrast could scarcely be greater.


  1. Thanks for the plug Andrew. You are very kind.

    As you know I certainly have more than enough failures to be able to share a few. However, I think I will take the opportunity to make a slightly different point. You write about using your own failure to learn about mistakes that you do not want to repeat in the future. I think it is important also to learn from successes and to use both successes and failures to learn both about mistakes that we don't want to repeat and about clever actions that we do want to repeat.

    One difficulty that arises is that an action that is a mistake in one circumstance can be a good thing to do in another. For example, if Paul had been a little bit less dishonest, your price-cutting strategy might have opened the way to future business with him. I say this because it is relevant to a mistake that I make frequently, which is to assume that someone that I am talking to thinks like I do.

    A case that keeps cropping up during my career is about telling people that they have made mistakes. I am always pleased to have my mistakes corrected. Basically, I would much rather have the opportunity to correct the mistake and be right tomorrow than not to know about the mistake and believe that I am right today. Many times in my career this has led me to make the mistake of correcting my 'superiors', thinking that it would earn their respect. Once I did it several times, to different members of the appointing committee, during an interview for a lectureship at Oxford University. I thought it would make them all think "wow - he's smart, we should give him the job". I never found out what they thought. They didn't give me the job!

  2. Thanks for the interesting comment. 'Telling people they have made mistakes' is a risky strategy. My preferred approach is helping people to realise they have made mistakes... But sometimes one does indeed have to tell, and the response can be interesting. But to do so several times in an interview strikes me as both brave and high- risk! If those were the qualities they were looking for, they should certainly have appointed you.