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Off your chest

Own up! Speak up! And join the global trend of learning from your mistakes.

Lesley Donna Williams, Impact Hub, Johannesburg.
Lesley Donna Williams, Impact Hub, Johannesburg.

We've all heard the (possibly apocryphal) story of the junior stockbroker who lost $20 million in a bad deal. He approached his boss in a state of devastation, ready to hand in his letter of resignation. "Don't be silly," the boss said. "I've just spent $20 million teaching you to never do that again."

Whether or not this story is true is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that human beings learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. But we're very reluctant to talk about our failures - especially professionally - as we believe they tarnish the successful image we're trying to create.

There is, however, a global trend to start talking about failure publicly, as a combination of altruism - 'learn from my mistakes' - and an increasing tendency to humanise the corporate space - 'we all make mistakes'. In fact, there are global 'fail conferences', held with the intention of providing a space in which people can talk about what went wrong and what they learnt.

New mistakes

Michelle Matthews, a curator of events in the development space who cottoned on to this trend and organised a fail conference for aid and NGOs in Cape Town, explains why she did it.

"There are situations where too much competitiveness can be counter-productive - such as in social development or when trying to establish the ecosystem of a disruptive new industry. It becomes important to share lessons in order to accelerate progress. By openly talking about challenges and mistakes, people who share failure hope to help others avoid the same pitfalls or navigate the obstacles more quickly."

She adds that people who talk about failure tend to be people who believe 'all boats rise with the tide' and they would like to see all other players in their environment improve because that will help everyone (including themselves) increase their impact.

When she held her fail conference in 2014, she said it attracted a great deal of attention, especially from people who had been in the field for a while. "People become frustrated and burnt out seeing the same mistakes over and over - they want to leapfrog all that...or at least make new mistakes."

Lessons for entrepreneurs

An area where failure is an important component of ultimate success is in the startup space. Much attention is paid to providing support for entrepreneurs, and one of the most important lessons an aspiring businessperson can learn is not to repeat the mistakes of others. Because of this, fail conferences or discussion spaces are often found in startup culture.

The Impact Hub, a global learning network of incubation centres for entrepreneurs, holds what it calls 'Fuckup Nights' all around the world, where people can share stories of failure with others in the same boat. Globally, more than 10 000 people attend these events in 139 cities in 42 countries to talk and learn about failure.

"I went to Mexico and attended a Fuckup Night there," says Lesley Donna Williams, the founder and MD of Impact Hub Johannesburg. "We decided to hold one of our own. When I stood up and admitted to my own failures, it created a safe space for people to share."

She says that when businesses fail, the people responsible tend to do a 'walk of shame' and distance themselves from their support structures. "But if they share their experience, it takes the power away from the failure. They learn to move on."

People become frustrated and burnt out seeing the same mistakes over and over - they want to leapfrog all that...or at least make new mistakes.

Michelle Matthews

People share all kinds of stories at FuckUp Nights - from their struggles with shareholder agreements, to their evolution from being a oneperson shop to coming to rely on a team, to battling with alcohol addiction from the pressure. "One entrepreneur who spoke had just walked out on his team two hours before. He was surprised by how much he was able to verbalise about what had happened," says Williams.

The Johannesburg Impact Hub is currently closed for a world-class reboot, and due to reopen in 2016. However, the organisation has started hosting events again from September this year.

While fail conferences are often received by participants with a sense of giddy relief, and the market for such events is definitely on the rise, this level of transparency and humility isn't going to reshape business communications in their entirety.

Failing to keep up

"There is quite a trend towards it globally, especially in social development and in the ICT startup world - in a 'chicks dig scars' kind of way," says Matthews. "I think it's extremely important in those sectors and situations. But I don't think it will ever become the status quo. Not everyone or every organisation is comfortable with sharing failure, and at some point, competitiveness kicks in, and then people or companies are only as transparent as they need to be to manage reputational risk."

Nonetheless, those companies and individuals that do admit to failure are helping the next wave of businesses and people to do better, and are establishing themselves as caring and supportive entities that aren't afraid to admit they also sometimes get it wrong.

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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