What failure has taught me

By Mari-Liis Soot

Monday November 30, 2020


Have you ever been in a situation where you know that you are doing the best and the most necessary thing in your field, and yet all you face are barriers of thought and relentless resistance?

There might be a slight chance that others are right and that your idea is not ripe — there should be a smiley here. People who try to change entrenched routines, organisational culture or institutional mindsets often end in situations like this. Resistance and barriers of thought happen when ideologies clash.

Likewise, systems tend to protect the status quo, making it difficult for new thoughts to emerge. The unseen barriers of thoughts and deeply rooted mindset are often the thickest and trickiest. This is probably not new to anyone, but we all have our own experiences and lessons learned. Below you will have mine.

I will shortly describe my three experiences with barriers of thought and resistance, and will tell you what they have in common.

Fighting the NIMBY effect

I work in the Ministry of Justice of Estonia, in the Criminal Policy Department. One of our goals is to reduce recidivism of offenders by supporting those who are released from prison and offering them housing.

A few years ago we tried to open a housing and support centre for ex-prisoners in an Estonian town but couldn’t because of the “Not in my backyard” effect, or NIMBY for short — in the blink of an eye, locals collected around 1000 signatures to block the opening of the centre. The idea of bringing 5-6 ex-prisoners to the municipality raised concerns about security.

The organised resistance mostly happened, not because we would have broken existing routines, but because of the unusual and new mindset of re-socialising offenders, which runs contrary to the popular punishment and isolation paradigm towards offenders. The barriers of thought were exacerbated due to local elections coming and some local politicians saw this as a chance to collect popular support.

We lost the support of the local government who was concerned about the forthcoming elections. We couldn’t steer the discussions onto a rational path, the whole situation was emotionally loaded and we didn’t have any chance of consensus making.

You can’t change culture as an outsider

For years I have been the strategy builder for Estonia’s anti-corruption policy. Although Estonia has little corruption compared to most countries in the world — it holds the 18th place in Transparency International CPI index, there are areas where transparency could be improved, one of them being healthcare. The propensity to corruption in this area is not a unique Estonian challenge.

In my role, I have been insisting that the people who are responsible in the sector increase transparency in order to prevent corruption. There has been a lot of progress in attitudes in general towards transparency compared to 10-15 years ago, and I can only now see that organisations have started to internalise the need for more transparency. Despite this, we haven’t yet been able to change the modus operandi in health care. In fact, we have faced indifference and active resistance to change.

Why? Mostly because of entrenched routines and organisational cultures. I also realise now that we wanted to achieve results too quickly, not taking into consideration the specifics of the sector. We cannot change culture in few years, it takes at least 15 years, probably more in the health care sector.

Many people in the health care sector feel that anti-corruption efforts have been introduced by outside actors, and the actors in the sector haven’t explicitly framed transparency as a goal they want to strive for. Internalising transparency related goals won’t happen overnight and there are a lot of triggers which must be involved, including key figureheads in the sector, be they doctors or health care companies. We were not able to involve them because we were not able to find a common language and specify a common goal.

The devil is in the details

A few years ago I was the main organiser of the TEDx TallinnPrison event, where our intention was to bring some fresh air into the closed prison and show the outer world how a prison looks and feels like.

We were excited about our ideas, including bringing prisoners on the stage to present their TEDx talks together with many outstanding speakers from the outside world. What the prison administration didn’t like was that the prisoners faces would be seen and recognisable during web broadcasting.

It may seem like a small thing, but for us, it was the question of equal treatment, of showing a proper and humane image of prisoners, which would help them in their later re-socialising. For the prison administration, not showing the prisoners’ faces was critical to protect the prisoners — what if they later regret they showed their faces? Thus we came to a compromise: the prisoners’ faces were rastered (ie. pixelated). They could, however, wear their own clothes, not prison uniforms.

We didn’t reach common ground because of different ideologies, because of how we perceive convicts and partly because the TEDxTallinnPrison team challenged the existing rules of the prison system. We didn’t foresee that certain details might be extremely important in certain circumstances and we didn’t listen to each other deeply.

We failed, but we also learned from it

One common thing which unites all these three examples is that I perceive them as failures.

I didn’t achieve the goals I set. (Although I am happy that these are not the only experiences that I have had so far, and that there are different examples as well.). I wouldn’t be talking about these failures if they had ended up dominating my path.

But I think it’s important to talk about failures, because these provide us with the best lessons. This is what I’ve learned from the three projects above:

  • Ideological discussions often lead to a dead-end: we shouldn’t enter the discussions from our firm beliefs and worldview
  • In order to reach agreement we first need to focus on common goals, not so much how to approach them
  • Change takes time and a lot of communication. The barriers of thought can be overcome by persistency, humbleness, patience and good communication where listening to other counterparts is more important than firing off your own arguments. And of course you need to have will from both sides. Overcoming barriers of thoughts is not easy and sometimes (but not always) you fail.

I hope this article will encourage you to talk more openly about the times you’ve failed, so we can all learn from each other. If you can avoid the pitfalls I fell into, perhaps they weren’t really failures, but just a roundabout way to help others achieve their goals — at least I like to think so.

This article is curated from Apolitical.


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