How can ‘learning from failure’ improve your work? 

Corinne Micallef shares insights from the event

19 January 2023

Let’s talk about failure

Failure is a loaded word. It’s deeply personal, emotional and can feel very uncomfortable. And it’s been used by Failspace as a deliberately disruptive word. I invited Dr Leila Jancovich to share her AHRC-funded research project as the first in the series of Cultural Sector Masterclasses precisely because of the provocation it offers. I was excited by the opportunity to be challenged in my thinking and curious about how the sector as a whole might benefit from that kind of disruption in how we talk about and understand our work.

The aim of Failspace is to test the benefits of acknowledging failure, testing whether, openly calling out failure makes it easier for us to learn and easier to change things for the better for everyone. Failspace is attempting to open up an honest discourse about participatory arts and the creative learning sector. In order for people to feel comfortable talking about failure, there needs to be an environment where it is a safe thing to do.

“I began to realise there are fantastically successful projects out there, but they're not actually changing the landscape, they're not addressing the inequalities that exist. Despite a culture of evaluation, little is learnt or changed. So, I began to ask myself why isn't much learning happening from evaluations as we think? And why doesn't much change?” said Leila.

Can we be honest?

As part of the research they asked people to share stories of failure. They developed a set of postcards which is one of the tools for people to have honest reflections.

screen grab of handwritten text in orange font

This postcard was shared as a symptom of the problem – “if we see evaluations as something that we lie on to get funding and carry on, or we have to tell stories of only success to get funding, then we then we aren't going to learn, evolve or change our practice.”

“What we found, during the four years of research, is the cultural sector is not set up in a way that's conducive to talking honestly or to real critical reflection. There’s a breakdown in trust between funders and organisations. Organisations think they have to be positive to their funders, or they won't get funding. Funders were telling us constantly that they didn't believe people's evaluations. And what both sides wanted was a more grown-up honest conversation.”

It's a spectrum

Part of that process has been to recognise that success and failure aren't opposites. Many people in the research said: “We don't like the words because they're binary opposites.” Failspace argues they absolutely aren't binary opposites. They exist along a spectrum, where there's outright success and outright failure at either end and that they, rarely, or if ever, occur.

Most things happen somewhere in the middle, partial success or partial failure. And thinking of them in that way makes it much easier to talk about them.

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Across different facets & criteria

There's also success and failure across different facets. What might be an artistic success could be a participation failure, or what might be a success in terms of profile and reputation might not be actually a successful process on the ground. And so again, unpicking those different criteria is really helpful. In terms of people acknowledging that they're not just saying everything was a failure, they're saying there was a failure in one small aspect of the work.

Perceived differently by different people at different times

One aspect of the research is how you embrace different points of view, rather than trying to reach consensus. They have seen a tendency for evaluations to say: “Everybody had a good time”, which is rare. Probably more accurate to assume people will perceive things differently and that's healthy.

“For example, my idea of a successful masterclass will be very different to A New Direction’s, and that will be different again to your definition, as participants. and recognizing that no one of us has a monopoly on what success and failure means here today”.

“Similarly, a success today might be that you have a nice time or success for me, further down the line, is whether you actually go on and talk more honestly about failure in the future. And so, again, recognizing that our perception of failure and success will change over time.”

Getting rid of the sting

Even the people who were resistant to the research, (and there were people who actively told them they should not be doing this research; that it was dangerous, irresponsible and threatening to the cultural sector), by the end of the conversation actually said, ‘It's quite cathartic to actually talk about these things.” It's liberating to acknowledge that everybody has failures.

One of the key aspects of how to do it is by making it more normal, by modelling it and by sharing stories of failure ourselves. Take a few moments now to listen to some of the audio recordings on their website

The audio recordings are things that real people in the cultural sector said to Failspace in interviews and workshops. While you're listening, think about these questions:

  • Which of the stories stood out for you?
  • Which were familiar, which were surprising?
  • What did it make you think about your own failures?

The Five Facets of Failure

The framework they’ve developed identifies the strands most often described by people in the research. In terms of successes and failures they are often talked about in the following ways:

Purpose: Did your project achieve its stated aims, objectives and outcomes? If its aims were to bring different groups together it might have been fantastically successful as an artistic activity but not actually bring different groups together. So, we have to constantly go back to think about what the purpose was.

Process: What actually took place on the ground? This includes all actions, activities, stages from beginning to end . For example, it could have been a very successful in terms of profile (i.e. lots of people heard about/saw it) but the process for participants or artists may have suffered, which could have led to the breakdown of trust between the artist and community. Are we able to be honest about where this has happened and the impact?

Participation: It’s not about the number of people who take part in the activity, but it's about the level of agency and power and ownership that those people feel in the activity. We're really trying to get people to not just be counting numbers, and really think about the level of that relationship and trust that you build up through participation.

Practice: Does it contribute to development of the field you operate in? For example, you could have a project that's fantastic for participants, but doesn't really develop artistic practice. Being able to recognise that a project doesn't have to do everything. It could do one or more of these facets well. Then it becomes a conversation about what really matters and which are the priorities. Recognizing priorities are different for different people.

Profile: They've found that when people talk about what success and failure is, they're mostly talking about the profile. Was it seen to be good? Did it raise their reputation in the field? Did it lead to more funding? Did it put the organization in a good light? And whilst that's important it can't be the only criteria.

That’s why this framework can help you to separate these out. It helps you to unpick where their successes and failures were.

Try it for yourself:


Download 'Wheel of Failure'

If you were using this at the planning stage, how you would define success and failure in your own work?

  • What different degrees of success and failure look like for your work across one or more facet
  • How these might be perceived differently by different people and what might be learnt from hearing these different views
  • Think about whose voices inform what the planning of what you do, who do you currently speak to?

Reflect on the work you've actually done, where you are now and how this might change what you do next.

Reflect on how easy you found it and how useful you found it.

Future for Failspace

Failspace are working with partners to embed talking about failure within the cultural sector; working with funders to try and change the applications and evaluations that they’re asking for; and working with organisations to encourage people to think about how they do the planning and the evaluation of their work in different ways. You can engage with the framework and use them to develop your own tools. They are hosting a conference in December. You can find out more details here.

Read more 'Masterclass' blogs