How organizations can learn from the human side of failure

Step by step, On-Off Group is becoming a more transparent organization, both externally with clients and prospects but also internally with each other on a human to human level. We’re practicing what we preach: empathy, empathy, empathy.

It’s not easy though, it doesn’t happen over night, it’s not magic and it takes time and effort.

We already have an open organization where employees can (and do!) speak up and share their ideas, opinions and reflections but we wanted to go deeper.

Kim Villanueva, who has been at On-Off Group for 12 months, said: “This was the first workplace where I felt that I could actually share my opinions without fear of getting told off. It’s opposite to the mindset in traditional organizations in the Philippines. I feel like my ideas are valued. People listen to you here.”

Humans are messy beasts: emotions, biases, assumptions (and more). A lot of these remain hidden, below the surface, never spoken about or addressed. When emotions remain hidden, biases stay unrecognized and assumptions are used to drive decisions, the organization rarely advances in a healthy direction.

The Failure School

At The Failure School, a project of On-Off Group, we teach people to recognize what lies beneath, deconstruct it and look at how we can improve. It’s a solid mix of “doing things” and then “reflecting on things”. Often we get too busy at work with “doing things” and forget to reflect. It’s only when we reflect, when we can objectively look at how we’re “doing the things”, that we can get better at “doing the things”, whatever those things may be.

Design Thinking

A few months back, we did an internal Design Thinking project in which a new design thinking intern interviewed everyone in the company to see if there were any underlying problems that weren’t being addressed.

We identified a lot of opportunities to make things better, one of which was: “How might we help employees embrace and learn from failure?”. Ironic coming from the company from which the idea for The Failure School was born but you can’t argue with the research so we had a think of how we could address it.

We voted as a team on the different ideas that came up and the one the team chose to go with was “Failures Of The Week”, where every week after the weekly staff meeting, each team member had the opportunity to bring a “failure” that they’d experienced since the last week and ask the team what they think they should do about it.

Sample failures

Now, every Wednesday, we share a wide range of things from small to big, including:

“I don’t sleep enough and it effects my health.”

Solution: Avoid blue light before going to bed by using things like Flux (Mac), Twilight (Android) or the built-in versions on the new iOS, OS X and Windows 10.

“Since I started working a morning schedule, I’ve been having trouble finding time for yoga”

Solution: Let’s do office yoga!

“I’m having trouble keeping track of meetings and deliverables.”

Solution: Use your calendar religiously as a to do list reminder

“I knew someone needed my help but they didn’t properly form their request for help so I ignored it.”

Solution: Call things out more.

“I have crippling feelings of anxiety and inadequacy *cries*”

Solution: Hugs. Thanks for sharing. Stop being hard on yourself. Take time for yourself. Accept yourself. One-on-one meetings with team members to discuss how each of us deal with that in our own way.

“I spend too much time doing things I’m not supposed to be doing.”

Solution: Clear distinction and separation of roles. Further discussion post-meeting with relevant people.

“I have trouble maintaining focus on the task at hand.”

Solution: Be more intentional when speaking to people. Maintain eye contact. Don’t forget to breathe, it can help you maintain focus.

Often, we find that the problem we have is not unique to us and someone else has experience with it so sharing with the group is great. By sharing, we also connect as human beings over and above just sharing work/project updates in the staff meeting.

What employees have said

It’s a big hit with the team, Kim Villanueva said: “Admittedly for me, it was nice because it keeps the staff open to each other. I’ve always felt generally that the closer you are the better you work together actually. It gives you a sort of understanding as to how each person is like or how they work. So far, I think it’s a good practice.”

A new intern, Krishia Ellis, who attended her first Failure Of The Week yesterday said: “As a new intern, my background helped: I had already learned that failure is a good thing before coming here. I think some people who are still in college or someone who has just graduated might find it more awkward at the beginning because at that age, we’re used to not being open about the failures and we focus on showing only our best self. It’s really helpful for everyone because we get the chance to help each other and really get to know each other. It’s a great way to get to know someone else, better than just lunch or small talk because it goes deeper. It’s hard to talk to someone you just met to talk about deep stuff but here you show your vulnerability which shows your human side and helps you connect.”

Patch Torres, an Experience Strategist, said: “I think it’s helpful in making us become more open to each other and to help us understand each other better. It helps you become less insecure and more comfortable around your workmates. You get to know that you’re not the only one suffering or having struggles and that others have their own struggles too. So by sharing, you no longer feel alone. It helps you remind yourself that it’s ok to fail, it’s ok to share it with others and it’s ok to be proud that you failed because you learn from it. It helps you become more confident with yourself after you’ve shown your weakest point to others.”

How to run your own Failure Of The Week

The step by step instructions are simple on the surface but rely on building a culture of support and acceptance before the meeting so that people feel safe sharing, knowing that they won’t be judged.

Here’s how to run the meeting:

  1. Get everyone in the room.
  2. Give 2–3 minutes time for everyone to think about what they’re going to share.
  3. Everyone shares one by one, from the heart about their failure or problem.
  4. The team suggest how they have solved a similar problem or how they might solve it.
  5. The facilitator makes a note on the board of all solutions.
  6. Once everyone, has shared, the facilitator wraps up with a positive message.

The 10 Principles of Failures Of The Week:

  1. No judging, no-one’s allowed to say “Oh that’s silly! Oh why do you feel like that?!” etc. Your feelings are valid.
  2. There’s no hierarchy, we don’t all look to the boss for answers, it’s a human to human exercise so anyone’s input is valid.
  3. Think about how your feedback will be received.
  4. You don’t need to take anyone’s advice if you don’t want to.
  5. You can share things large or small, you’re under no obligation to share hard, emotional stuff.
  6. You are a human and you make mistakes but you also have the capability to improve.
  7. Failure and sharing leads to learning.
  8. Empathize when people share, put yourselves in their shoes and try to feel what they’re feeling as if you were them. Don’t forget where you came from.
  9. Listening is often more important than giving advice. Often, people just need other people to listen. Don’t be pressured to look for solutions. Them just sharing the problem with another human being can be a solution for them. Try asking first if the other person wants you to suggest a solution.
  10. Don’t be afraid to open up and be honest with your feelings.

Patch continued: “I feel like I can open up to On-Off Group. Because of our approach to not judging, I was able to share my honest feelings. As a group, I feel like we’re really a family with whom I can comfortably share my thoughts. We all listen to each other.”

Are you doing anything similar in your company? Or have you tried this? We’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments!

Phil Smithson