My Experiment with a Personal Failure Report

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

At this time last year - the end of the fiscal year for government, during performance review season - I wrote a personal failure report, based on the Engineers Without Borders model and likewise inspired organizations like Fail Forward. The goal was to reflect on my failures and consider how I'd make the most of those lessons learned. As Engineers Without Borders put it:
EWB believes that success in development is not possible without taking risks and innovating – which inevitably means failing sometimes. We also believe that it’s important to publicly celebrate these failures, which allows us to share the lessons more broadly and create a culture that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking. 
In the comments on last week's post (see: I Don't Have It All Together), David referenced failure reports:
We have started with failure reports and talking about failure, but very rarely do I see anyone admitting to anything that can't be construed as failing up or failing on the road to success. There's a certain "failure-based PR" lens that's rubs me the wrong way.
Here's the funny thing: after several drafts, the personal failure report just didn't work. At all. I posted it, then quickly took it down. I failed at writing a failure report.

Here's why:
  • It's impossible to know if alternative decisions at certain points would have worked; there's no data on the results of choices not made
  • I don't work in a vacuum. I tried to make it about how I worked within my environment, but it was impossible to fully separate my personally owned missteps
  • There wasn't much overlap in the Venn diagram of A) brutal honesty about how things went, B) what I thought would be useful for others to read, and C) what I would be willing to publish (the aforementioned failure-based PR lens)

It wasn't a complete waste. The exercise reminded me about what I valued about my role in the public service, and where I had to work harder to live up to that. But all told, failures exist in a very particular context, and it's better for us - and those we'd share resultant lessons with, even publicly - to respect that.

Being up front about one's vulnerability (see: On the Value of Vulnerability- for the sake of intellectual honesty, creating a safe space for dialogue, and building trust - may be a different beast altogether.