International Day for Failure an opportunity to learn from the lows

By Stephen Easton

Monday October 12, 2015

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The celebration of failure — as long as one fails early and often while working on a series of small projects — is one of the big themes in the present wave of enthusiasm for Silicon Valley style innovation and entrepreneurialism.

Government agencies especially are coming under increasing pressure to abandon the approach by which new systems and services are replaced through ambitious one-off projects that take years to plan and deliver. If things go wrong — or even if they go mostly right — this is now seen as a recipe for budget blow-outs and delivery disasters.

Stop doing what doesn't work

Of course, failure is seen as a good thing only as part of an iterative approach to developing new services and functions, which tackles problems or user needs one at a time, breaking up the risk of it all going belly-up in one big steaming pile of failure and allowing lessons to be learned and applied quickly.

The recognition that there is nearly always at least some value in things going pear-shaped — as long as they only go wrong on a small scale, and at little cost — will reach a new zenith tomorrow, for it will be International Day for Failure.

The “international” tag is perhaps a little bit aspirational, but the quirky group of Finnish fail-worshippers who launched the Day for Failure in 2010 hope to make it an internationally recognised holiday by 2020:

“In the same way people exchange love on Valentine’s Day, it offers a chance to share failure experiences and learn from them to overcome fear of failure. October 13th will be the symbol of courage that enables people to keep challenging themselves for the bigger success, despite failures.”

Australia was apparently added to the list of 17 countries celebrating Day for Failure in 2012.

In a testimonial to promote the day, the United States ambassador to Finland Bruce Oreck said:

“It’s going to sound wrong, but we do failure very well. I’ve never met anyone who got it right the first time and was done. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to fail.

… I can point to almost anything that I’ve done, where I’ve done a really, really bad job, before I got it right. Some really embarrassing ones, too.”

Digital Transformation Office CEO Paul Shetler has said a few times this year that the federal government has been failing when it comes to serving the public. In a short treatise on agile teams, the DTO explains all about creating an environment where failure is contained and compartmentalised, making it not so damaging:

“Agile practices don’t guarantee success: you can still fail, but failure should be treated as an opportunity to learn. The ideas of learning by doing, failing fast, and adapting and adjusting to changes are all core agile practices. The agile team should create and promote a culture that experiments and learns from failure. Don’t be afraid to assess, adjust and experiment with new ideas.”

As well being a great opportunity to organise peripheral events that are marginally related to a broad theme on particular day, International Day for Failure revolves around people and organisations sharing stories of how they’ve stuffed things up on social media.

But will any public servants be brave enough to share their own examples of lessons learnt from government fiascos, debacles, flops and failures? The hashtag is #dayforfailure.

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