Failing to learn from failure

How can public services make use of learning and information that result from failure? Dyfrig Williams blogs on learning from failure.

Last week I attended the Learning from Failure workshop in Cardiff. Before I go any further, I should clarify that these reflections are very much on my own process of working, rather than the work of the Good Practice Exchange.

The event was a bit of an eye-opening session, as it gave us all as participants the scope to look at aspects of our work that are not traditionally discussed. But why not?

In her paper on ‘Strategies for learning from failure,’ Amy C. Edmondson shares the Spectrum of Failure, which shows that blameworthy failure rarely results from the actions of any one individual. So why do we still tend to think that an effective and productive workplace culture is one that shuns failure and casts blame at all costs?

Order, order!

In the group exercise, each table designed an enabling environment for innovation, and each one was an environment where failure was accepted. Which makes sense, because we’re not encouraging innovation by cracking down on failure, we’re cracking down on ideas for new ways of working.

I was given the task of feeding back our table’s thoughts, which were based around the point that an enabling environment is complex and messy. What I personally meant by this is that a traditional approach, and the way that I’ve tended to approach innovation, is messy. My own innovation has often been a by-product, rather than an outcome or focus I’ve chased. It’s not been something that’s been identified in my appraisals, and it’s not been something that I’ve had to report back on to measure success.

This messiness is complicated even further by the environment that we’re working in. There is no one-size fits all solution for issues around public service access and delivery. What works in one community may not work in another.

However, there are approaches to innovation in the wider world that are much more rigorous. It was interesting to look at the work of the Bromford Lab, who have got a much more structured approach to innovation by testing ideas. One of their founding principles is ‘to fail fast,’ which means that they uncover lots of information and learning from their tests.

This planned approach makes it much easier to measure the success of innovation. Whilst there is no doubt innovation taking place at Bromford outside the realms of the Lab, taking issues and ideas to the Lab gives scope to evaluate them in a more formal way. This is at its most obvious with their Trello, where evaluation is planned and built in to their testing process.

Making space to evaluate

Making the time to evaluate impact has been the main learning point for me. I’ve tended to treat evaluation as something I do when I get the chance, rather than a process to embed into my work. And if you don’t take the time to properly look into why something’s failed, then there’s little chance to learn from it.

And so my more rigorous process of evaluation begins. The dates are now in the diary – I’ll be taking some time out from my day to day work and getting on with my evaluation. I’ll be leaving the physical space of my desk, which will help me get away from the usual distractions like email and the pile of paper on my desk, and get me in the right headspace to approach a different aspect of our work. Wish me luck!


  1. Nice post Dyfrig.
    Good to see your personal reflections on the day.
    Taking the time to think deeply about what a session means and how you can use it is important. Reflecting to make sense of things and help turn words and thoughts into action as you rightly say.
    I do wonder if the process of constructing a blog post helps with this? (I know it helps me)
    Is it an approach that other people might try?

    One of the things that fearured on the day was the idea of two broad areas of failure : Plannec and Unplanned
    Planned (this might not be the right word, maybe Systematic?) – the territory of routine things happen in everyday life and we fix them. The sort of thing Matt Wyatt talks about in his Timeline of Inevitable Failure. The idea was that we try to be more open about the failures/adjustments in this area, and do more to ‘plan’ this sort of failure. I think ‘plan’ might be more about making – failure and learning from it – a more routine and accepted pastime.
    The idea is that you routinely learn from small, safe to fail activities, you more agile and resilient to cope with the unplanned failures. Matt talks about this in the comments on the Swiss cheese post.

    It was an interesting idea, well worthy of a bit more of your reflection time and another post?

    • Hi Chris

      Cheers for this, completely agree – there’s definitely another post there! I think there might actually be a series of posts resulting from the event….

      I also think writing the blog did help me to formulate my ideas. Having to look back over the material from the day and the paper on ‘Strategies for learning from failure’ made me sensecheck my conclusions – it’s hard to write a post about something when the evidence suggests a different conclusion! The other thing that helped was phrasing it in an informal language. Someone said the other day (might have been you?!) that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t really understand it, and I think blogging does help me check my understanding.

      Cheers for the comment, and have a great holiday!


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