Suffice it to say, working in HE in 2018 was to witness some interesting and turbulent times. Some things were successes, but some things were failures.
Of course we don’t call them failures. They were ‘challenges’, or ‘limited successes’. There were things dropped quietly, so that they didn’t become failures. The lessons we could have learned from them were also quietly forgotten. In a few years the thing will probably get picked up again as if from scratch, leaving one in danger of trundling down old tracks, rather than show the genuine progress that building on failure can achieve.
Some failures don’t get talked about again. Some do, but they don’t get named. They’re referred to in hushed tones, or by silly nicknames. Sometimes, even worse, you want to talk about them but naming them and referring to them is not done. The polite company shuffles its feet and murmers under its breath. Hours of work and learning, even on something that was ultimately unsuccessful, gets swept under a carpet.
Failing things should be brought up short. But the failing thing doesn’t stop when axe falls. The failing thing is still a valuable thing, in its attempt. It’s frustrating to not be able to be honest about our failures. It’s not nice to not be successful. But when we start averting our eyes from our failures, we start to run the risk of several things. One, we relentlessly push on with things that are unlikely to succeed – not ending things early enough. Two, we only back things that are guaranteed of success, preventing us from engaging in the messy quasi-failure of experimentation and feedback.
A failure spectrum is a popular suggestion on the management of innovation blogs, but I shy away from some of the relentless chipperness of ‘we can learn from our mistakes’. Failure is more tangled up than mistakes being made. Not facing failure head on, and not being open about the experience can reduce failure to ‘mistakes made’, though, and that feels less constructive in the long run.