Oh noes, a FAIL! Notes from the unconference session on 'failure' at MW2009

These are my really rough notes from the unconference session at Museums and the Web, written up quickly in order to capture the essence of the discussion and open it up for comment.

Susan Chun, Dana Mitroff Silvers, Bruce Wyman and I began and were later joined by Seb Chan and Jennifer Trant.

I explained my motivation in suggesting the session – intelligent, constructive failure is important. Finding ways to create a space for that conversation isn't something we do well at the moment.

Susan started the conversation by pointing out that there were different definitions or types of failure. Defining 'failure' more precisely is useful.

Types of failures include: over budget, badly implemented, badly specified, future failures.

Dana pointed out that we needed to define success as well as defining failure. A more nuanced understanding of failure is important, especially when hoping to encourage more people to talk about failure. Discussion about choosing the right metrics for success – the right metrics may vary depending on whether you're a funder or a department or whoever.

Funding models can set you up for failure.

Bruce pointed out that it's not the failure that matters, it's what you do with the failure.

Some apparent failures may not really be failures.

Are you funding the process or the product?

Not having the mechanism for exposing the knowledge is a failure.

The definitions of failure and success need to include the net gain for an organisation or in new/improved processes as well as the product.

What kind of environment is needed so that people can publish judgements of their own success or failure?

Susan suggested the MCN project registry would be a good place for this information.

What if it was routine to talk about what failed or succeeded in each project? Funding should reward people who talk about failures. Discussion about space for reflection on 'lessons learned' in project summation.

Agency is important – you talk about the failures of your own projects, other people don't dob you in.

Dana – talking about failures in a project should be a normal part of MW papers.

Label it 'lessons learned', not 'failure'.

Susan – [Remove roadblocks about what happens if funders hear you think your project failed in some way -] Talk to funders about requiring an examination or reflection of each project for failure in the same way the issue of open source development was tackled. Pro-active approach!

Me: when you're putting in for funding, you should have to show that you've talked to people with similar projects about the lessons they learned.

Susan – put ILMS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) reports online. [A small but practical thing to do]. Change the culture of secrecy.

Funding can be a carrot and a stick. Without that, institutional change is hard.

Points of resistance (some summing up):
understanding how to define failure/success
culture of secrecy
fear of exposure to funders
lacking the jargon to describe failure (which would also help normalise the process of discussing it openly)

Jennifer – if there aren't any negative consequences, why can't you talk about it?

General discussion about the need for early, continual dialogue about projects. It's difficult to talk about failures if you're not already talking about the project. Paraphrasing Seb -talking about it already in an informal context, like a blog, may help here.

Iterative, transparent reporting is important. It also helps other people talk about failures.

Susan – other causes of failures are project that never happened. Whether they missed their time, didn't get funding, whatever. Consider those as failures too, and talk about them. Everyone benefits, whether that's the person with the great idea that never got to see it happen, or people who've built on it later.

Talk about nascent projects. Exposing them to comment early can help prevent failure. Like the old crack about voting, public discussion about projects should happen early and often!

Hoarding ideas is pointless.

We need a template for talking about failure. Prompts or questions for consideration.

It's not just overall project failures, it can include institutional, departmental or structural failures.

Dana suggested confessional sessions, perhaps at the next Museums and the Web conference. Jennifer and Seb took it up, suggesting YouTube captures with disguised voices and silhouettes to make it easier, and encouraging discussion of failures by type or theme.

Discussion about the role of commentators, respondents in sessions. The voice of the one that didn't work.

Find an acceptable form of critical questions so that people can help prevent other projects failing, make the most of the experience out there.

Putting my money where my mouth is, one final comment from Seb was about a possible failure of the unconference sessions in not getting people together again at the end to report back. This was received constructively, and might happen during the final plenary.

5 thoughts on “Oh noes, a FAIL! Notes from the unconference session on 'failure' at MW2009”

  1. Thanks for the #MW2009 post. Went to your notes on failure and appreciate the concise note-taking; esp teh attention to syntax participants were expressing. Western Association of Art Conservators (USA) formerly dedicated entire conferences to "failures" and they were among the most useful conferences in my early career. Will pursue another, using your notes as a guide. Thank you. Twitter: GOKConservator

  2. Mia: thanks for leading a productive discussion; I'm encouraged to act on some of the ideas that the group came up with in the coming months. On a related note, I've been enjoying browsing the Ning group, "The Mistake Bank," whose tag line is: "learning from faux pas, slip ups, and decisions gone wrong" at http://mistakebank.ning.com/

  3. Thinking about this, it is evident that few efforts totally fail just as few totally succeed and that success and failure are in the eye of the beholder. Put that together and I can image a session, not unlike our current Crit Room for designers, in which project managers describe their effort, and what they see as its successes and failures to date while reviewers suggest possible other successes and failures that they see from their perspective. The consequence would be to jar the managers out of their assumptions about what is valuable and possibly introduce a critical perspective that can assist them in the further pursuit of their goals. Worth a try?

  4. Dale Kronkright/GOKConservator – thanks for your comment! Do you know how the conservator conferences were able to foster constructive discussion of failure? Did anyone worry about what their colleagues would say, for example?

    schun – thanks for the link! I've joined and will have a look around for some useful ideas. I'd love to hear how it goes if you try out some of the things we discussed.

    dbear – it's an interesting idea. We started getting there with a discussion of the types of failure, but a critique of the label 'failure' as applied to different projects could be really valuable. In some ways I'm reminded of JISC's 'Critical Friends' (http://critical-friends.org/).

    I think it shouldn't only be up to project managers to 'own' failure – I'm not formally a PM but have failures I could confess to. On that note, it's interesting thinking about the kinds of environments where I'd be comfortable admitting some of those failures.

    As a general note, Jared Spool has an interesting take on 'Failure Is Not an Option — It's a Requirement' (http://bit.ly/3w0vV8)

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