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A Safe Place to Discuss Failure

In keeping with the themes of vulnerability and failure, I recently listened to an episode of the NPR podcast “Rough Translation,” that discussed a novel approach entrepreneurs all over the world are taking to destigmatizing failure.

The episode titled, When Failure is a Four-Letter Word, begins with a profile of an entrepreneur named Pepe Villatoro. During the course of the discussion, Pepe recalls growing up watching his father, who was also an entrepreneur, start several businesses. One of those businesses, a pothole fixing business, ultimately failed after his father purchased a machine to fix potholes but was never able to use it.

In Pepe’s retelling, he sheds light on how his father responded to the failure by pretending that it never happened, even going so far as to pretend that the pothole fixing machine was never purchased. This experience led Pepe’s family to push him towards the pursuit of an educational degree that would guarantee him a salary and ultimately insulate him from the debilitating ego hit that entrepreneurial failure can cause.

Pepe took his family’s advice and became an engineer after studying physics. However, these degrees could not stave off of the creative bug and Pepe eventually followed in his father’s footsteps by starting a business that ultimately failed.

In his failure, he ultimately continued to follow in his father’s footsteps by trying his best to conceal it and its accompanying shame. Pepe did this for about three years until one night over drinks a friend suggested that they go around the table and share their failures.

This one event led to the formation of a group and a branded “failure” night with people sharing their failures in front of an audience, not for the purposes of sharing a failure that ultimately led to a success, but solely for the cathartic aspect. This concept has now grown into an international sensation that today exists in 86 countries and 316 cities with more than 1,500 shared stories of failure.

The podcast made me think about what it would look like to share similar experiences within the city government context. At the Civic Design Lab one of our guiding values is transparency – sharing our successes, failures, lessons learned, mistakes, etc.

This sort of transparency can be scary and anxiety-inducing, yet listening to how Pepe’s simple formula of sharing failure resonated so widely makes me want to test whether this sort of sharing could shift the culture within government.

Conceptually it’s different than the typical “fail fast and learn ethos” of innovation. It feels more genuine and sincere. Still, I wonder if implemented whether this sort of sharing would help transform thinking around failure and engender more flexibility around testing things without fear of a negative result.

We have yet started these conversations but it will be interesting to see what the results are.

Does your workplace have a safe space to share stories of failure?

Brandon L. Greene is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the Manager of the Civic Design Lab in Oakland. Brandon is a graduate of Boston University Law School where he was a Public Interest Scholar and Martin Luther King Social Justice Fellow. Previously, Brandon was an Attorney and Clinical Supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center where he created and lead the decriminalization of poverty clinic. Brandon’s article Depraved Necessities: Prison Privatization, Educational Attainment and the Path to Profit was published in 2013 by SRBLSA Law Journal. His forthcoming articles will be published in the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal and the Berkeley Criminal Law Journal. Twitter: @brandonlgreene. You can read his posts here.

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Profile Photo Junebfl

Thanks for this piece Brandon. I typically do a time of reflection whereas I do the following:
What went well
What didn’t go well (failure)
What can be done differently