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How to maximise your Return on Failure (ROF)

Last month, we joined the Third Sector Project Management Forum (TSPMF) at the British Red Cross offices in London to facilitate a session around how to think brilliantly and use different thinking strategies.

As with many other industries, the Third Sector is facing challenging times in a rapidly changing environment. Previous research within the third sector has highlighted the importance of learning lessons from past experiences and projects. Therefore, we set the challenge question: “How to identify, take on board and put into practice lessons learnt to improve future projects and become more efficient and effective?” 

The purpose of this question was to help unpack ideas around ownership of lessons learnt and to orientate the focus on embedding and enabling change for future projects.

The concept of ‘Return On Investment’ (ROI) is well understood (looking at the positive benefits or pay-offs from investing in a resource) however, this session revealed the importance of a new concept – ‘Return On Failure’ (ROF).

The discussions identified some really valuable and important lessons for us all. Here we unpack 10 big ideas for us all to maximise our ROF, along with some key questions to ask ourselves along the way.

10 big ideas to maximise your ROF

Firstly, some essential mindset shifts:

1. Reframe failure

“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil, they aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new….and should be seen as valuable.” Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation Studios

The importance of cultivating a mindset and culture of acceptance around failure emerged. This is all about reframing perceptions of failure.

Failure is often given a negative connotation. Some people are so afraid of failure that they rarely attempt anything that involves the risk of failure. But a fear of failure is often what holds us back and prevents future success.

People don’t acknowledge that success is often built upon a ladder of failure. Take Thomas Edison, the inventor of the world’s first lightbulb for example. He achieved success by failing many times, but reframed this failure to a positive; “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Failure is our opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently.

KEY QUESTION: How do you view failure? Do you see it as catastrophic or a valuable experience?

2. Build in reflection

Reflection was another key theme that emerged from the discussion. Most people prefer to invest time looking forward, and not back; with a tendency to dislike and resist change, often feeling comfortable and therefore complacent with established and unquestioned ways of thinking and doing.

However, reflection can have a real value to ‘sharpen the saw’. The Japanese have a spatial concept called ‘Ma’, which roughly translates into a gap or interval. ‘Ma’ is a fundamental pause that enables growth and sparks creativity. It’s about allowing the space for contemplative time to let your thoughts percolate. A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning. It is deliberate reflection on experience that is essential.

KEY QUESTION: How do you integrate reflection into your work processes to encourage more effective learning outcomes?

3. Be honest

Easy to say and harder to do. Being honest about failure is all about accepting the hard truths and being open and public about what hasn’t worked well.

As one forum member expressed, this is about avoiding the ‘Photoshop’ version of events. It often requires a culture of openness; for people to ask themselves what they could have done differently and to share this with others, with the expectation that others do the same in return. This only happens if people feel they are in a safe environment to share honest truths.

When learnings are shared and passed on to others, their benefits are magnified.

KEY QUESTION: How honest are you with yourself and others about your learnings?

4. Celebrate the positives

The positives can be as important as the negatives. However, it is human nature to focus more on the painful experiences and what you want to avoid happening next time; It’s called the negativity bias – where the negatives have a greater impact on us than positive things. It means we have to work harder to remember that learnings also come from the positives and we need to actively bring these to light, as well as learning from the negatives.

There’s also a really practical point that relates to this – talking about lessons learnt can often feel negative, hard work and uninspiring, so asking colleagues to come along to these kinds of meetings can just put people off. To make a change, these sessions need to feel progressive, positive and worth committing time to. A focus on continual improvement, striving to be better and optimising working can really help here.

KEY QUESTION: How much focus to do you place on the positives vs. the negatives?

5. Check expectations

“There’s a lot to be said for making small, incremental changes that reap big dividends in the long term.” Ben Hunt-Davis, Olympic rowing champion turned performance coach and co-author of ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

While the idea of finding the ‘big wins’ and the ‘game-changing’ ideas for what can be done next time around will feel more valuable and aspirational, it’s worth remembering that a series of smaller, incremental improvements and ‘nudges’ can add up to be just as important.

KEY QUESTION: Do you recognise the small daily wins that contribute to longer-term goals?

It was also clear from the discussions that it’s not enough to focus on mindsets in isolation, but we also need to focus on how people work. This leads us on to a couple of further critical ideas;

6. Take on-going ‘snapshots’

This is all about timely lessons and feedback and learning as you go, rather than waiting until the end when things get lost, memories fade and motivation wains. It’s a call for people to be alert to drawing lessons as they happen rather than waiting until the project ends.

KEY QUESTION: How could you capture lessons in a more timely fashion?

7. Focus on people not just process

Tap into the expertise of others through collaboration and dialogue – it’s just as important as following processes. This is all about placing value and importance of having the right conversations with people who will share their ideas and give their relevant insights into what you are working on. It is often through discussion with others that will help us reflect on the processes and the lessons learnt.

KEY QUESTION: How do you tap into the expertise and experiences of others?

Finally, we heard that there are some priority practices that organisations should look to improve on;

8. Find the macro-learnings

Make sure there is a way to take learnings from across multiple projects. This is about looking up to see the overarching and often most important lessons to be learnt at an organisational level. Naturally, the next step on is to find effective ways to capture, communicate and cascade these lessons for the greater good.

By taking a birds-eye view, you can ask yourself whether your overall approach to learning from failure is working. There’s a call here to make the lessons memorable.

KEY QUESTION: What lessons cut across projects and the wider organisation?

9. Ask for help

Get third parties involved if useful. The idea of inviting external facilitators into review sessions for instance was raised in order to help unearth the learnings, to offer an independent ear and to help the discussions. This is particularly relevant considering the importance placed on having the time and space to reflect in order to identify the lessons that should be learnt.

KEY QUESTION: What external help could you access?

10. Ensure effective handovers

Finally, there is a specific issue of learnings being lost when people leave organisations. There is a need for leavers to both document and brief others so future employees can benefit from past experiences; both good and bad!

KEY QUESTION: How is your organisation capturing learnings from leavers?

When you read through these, think about your own organisation and how you get your return from failure (ROF). What are you going to take from it? The challenge for us all is to keep learning each day and from every new experience, whether good, bad or indifferent.