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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Increasing Openness through Fail Festivals

Transparency in organizations can be described as an honest, two-way openness between employees and management. When transparency is part of workplace culture, it comes along with trust, communication, and greater levels of employee engagement and advocacy.

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, coined the term 'psychological safety'. A team's ability to embrace failure in their work together is a core example of this kind of safety.

In a psychologically safe workplace:

  • mistakes are openly discussed

  • people give voice to difficult issues

  • help is easy to ask for

  • the team is mutually supportive

  • each individual's unique contribution is valued

Wayan Vota, founder of Fail Festival, aims to celebrate failure as innovation and learning. That means doing a better job of talking about failure openly in our organizations, and openly with our peers. You can do this through the use of ‘Fail Festivals.’ According to Vota, there are four main components for a successful Fail Festival:

  1. Each meeting should be in the first person and the person sharing should own their role in the failure. That means using “I” or “we” not “them” or “they”.

  2. The facilitator should go first to provide psychological safety to the rest of the team that talking about failure is acceptable.

  3. Each person who shares should keep it short – 4 to 7 minutes – and focus on the key aspects of the failure and what they learned from it.

  4. Comedy, humor, and self-deprecation could be employed often to lighten the mood and help participants bond with the facilitator and internalize the learning.

Fail Festival guidelines:

  • A team meets for an hour each month.

  • Two main props help to create the festival...

  • An item that can be passed around to center attention on the person speaking. An item that playfully refers to failure (like a bent spoon) is effective here. If on a video call, everyone can bring their own failure object (perhaps something that's broken in the home or office) and put it on display when it's their turn.

  • If you’d like a visual of the common themes that come up, have a poster of some kind that can be projected on a wall or share a PowerPoint slide on zoom.

  • Each member of the team comes along with an experience from the past month where things didn't go as intended. These should ideally be a mixture of situations where the unintended outcome was a problem and situations where it turned out to be a net positive (if only due to the value of the learning).

  • The group self-organizes to form a sequence of people. When together physically, this is as simple as getting into a circle. When in a virtual setting, it might involve assigning numbers to the ends of people's names.

  • Starting with the first participant, set an alarm and ask them to describe the failure, sharing …

    • The context

    • What happened

    • The result

    • What they / others learned

  • If they’d like, when they're done they can stand up, take a bow and everyone claps.

  • The sharer then passes the failure object (bent spoon etc...) to the next person in the sequence. If on a video call, they can name the next person in the sequence and put their own failure object out of sight.

Holding these meetings on a regular, monthly cadence further contributes to this normalization effect (as well as providing a fun and unique activity to help teammates feel more connected). When convening this ritual, it's particularly important to invite new hires. This sends a clear message that mistakes and failures in the organization are opportunities to learn and grow and never sources of shame.


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