Designing a ‘Festival of Failure’. A #WorkingOutLoud post

Today i am sharing some elements of the design around failure: it’s for a one day ‘Festival of Failure’, a structured ‘sense making’ event, to act as the foundation for change. A celebration of failure is not about blame, but it is intentional: it’s about a choreographed way of exploring cause, learning lessons, and moving beyond constraint.

A Festival of Failure

That language of ‘Constraint’ is the language i’m using in ‘The Change Handbook’, and speaks to a mindset where the past constrains the future, often for very good reasons. The Festival of Failure is a way to break that constraint down.

The event can be run either physically, in a venue, or virtually. Typically it runs for one day, but it can run for multiple cohorts across multiple days, with both face to face and virtual participation.

We open the Festival by establishing our common rules: what is our purpose, how will we hold people safely, how will we handle blame or recrimination. We work with the group to set their own rules on this, within a framework that keeps the Organisation safe. The Festival is not intended to be entirely comfortable, but it’s intended to be respectful, safe, and purposeful.

Curation’ – carried out in the run up to the event, or on the day, is where we guide people to ‘curate’ an example of failure. This may be personal, team, or Organisational. It may sit within the current Organisation, or in the wider world.

Interpretation’ – From here, people present their example of failure from the stage. Again this is a structured approach to help interpret the failure, to share with the Festival group. We use a framework for this interpretation, for example, identifying resources, decision points, technologies etc, which contributed to the failure. Once the failure has been ‘interpreted’, it’s lodged in the Festival gallery, shared with the group.

Sense Making’ – carried out across different group sessions, with each group choosing several of the failures, and carrying out ‘sense making’ activity.

Celebration’ – is about inflexion points: it’s a way of celebrating individual and organisational participation, but also about a ritual of putting failure into the past, and taking the lessons forward.

Releasing’ – in a carefully choreographed ritual, we release the blame, and constraint, keeping the memory and the lessons.

Storytelling’ is a group activity, to co-create the collective story being taken forward.

Festival Choreography and Safeguarding

In the physical space, the Festival is experienced through movement: we set up the space with different areas for ‘interpretation’, for ‘storytelling’, etc as well as the gallery space, where stories are lodged.

Failures can be captured on posters, video diaries, or through drawings, or even using artefacts. When the failure is lodged, the individual or group writes the label, putting it into the collection.

When we release the failure, we choreograph the ritual carefully, and by using wristbands, or other tokens, we mark the way we are moving forwards, beyond constraint.

The Festival of Failure is a challenging day, but we hold a serious responsibility to hold people safely. Partly this is done by setting out the rules, together, but partly by understanding how we handle conflict.

We use ‘Stories of Difference’ to do this: where there is disagreement, we do not strive for consensus: this is not a forensic analysis of system failure, but rather a cultural analysis of change. We help groups in conflict to write a story of where, and how, their opinion varies, and we celebrate our ability to do so.

social Leadership 100 - Complex Collaboration

The Festival of Failure is an example of the type of Complex Collaboration that sits at the heart of Social Leadership: a willingness not simply to listen to stories that we want to hear, in spaces that we already know, but rather to cross the boundaries of our uncertainty and fear, to engage in the stories that we must write, in order to truly change.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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