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The F Word

Mark Robinson on moving past the taboo of talking about failure in the arts

Mark Robinson
Jul 4th 2014

I write beneath a postcard on my office wall. It’s an image by Tom Philips of Samuel Beckett incorporating the lines “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” So when invited to write this piece, I thought, “Great. After all, what can go wrong? It’ll either be grand, or no one will notice, or it’ll be a failure,” which will be a comment in itself. Well, I didn’t think exactly that, but it is the kind of irritating thing you hear cultural people say about failure. I want to argue that our attitude to the F word needs to move on from silence and flippancy. We need to be less romantic and more measured, so that we can take failure seriously, but also learn, succeed and change.

If everything worked we’d all be playing too safely

Some people have the word failure ringing in their ears – inhabiting and inhibiting. It makes them cautious, and over-compliant with fashion or instruction. In every potential project they see the things that might not work. Their work remains modest and safe, so they feel less vulnerable. They rarely go down in history. Others love failure. Artists and arts organisations must, they say, have the right to fail if they are to truly succeed. Insolvency and bankruptcy are just bumps in the road. They talk of “the glory of failure”. It can be exciting and liberating spending time with these people. Others mention failure only in passing. They hurry on to learning and how failure taught them everything they know. They say there’s no failure except the failure to learn. Some believe that one day things will turn to gold, if they just keep experimenting. And some people admit nothing.

There are different kinds of failure and they carry different weights. It is worth laying out some kinds of failure in arts and culture, so we can see what’s at stake. That a book, film or show may ‘fail’ artistically or commercially is not surprising. For an established artist we see it as a sign of ambition. Changes to some arts industries have made it more difficult for newer artists to not succeed commercially immediately. Fewer companies give novelists or musicians the time to develop a following if their first two books or albums don’t do well. But in general, no risk means no growth.

We need to be less romantic and more measured, so that we can take failure seriously

Organisational failure is a much more serious, and often public, matter. It can end careers, lead to political ructions and land funders in front of the Public Accounts Committee, as well as in the local papers. Someone must be to blame. The learning and sharing of lessons is secondary to blame or justification. Most organisational change processes fail to meet their objectives. Saying this is often followed by a ripple of “why bother, then?” Some who want the right to fail are less willing to give it to others, revealing something of the power dynamics at play. It’s one thing to take a risk in a space where we have some control of the stakes. It’s another for someone else to gamble with our jobs.

Funders fail too. Despite all the assessment and data, they sometimes pick options that prove to be wrong in some people’s eyes. I know because I did when I was a funder. Sometimes, to make sure (oh, the hubris!) we didn’t waste the money we’d invested, we invested more. Usually ‘disasters’ became ‘successful turnarounds’, but there were projects that my Nan would describe as failures – expensive ones.

Some who want the right to fail are less willing to give it to others, revealing something of the power dynamics at play in risk-taking

If we are to forgive any romanticism or machismo about failure, we need to take into account the costs of failure as well as the returns. The stakes vary. Paul Smith, founder of Newcastle-based start-up accelerator Ignite100, suggested that failure fetishisation is “gamifying failure as an accomplishment well earned”. This is a privilege open only to the powerful and those with resources. Those resources might be the position to ride out criticism. They might also be grants, investors, or simply a sense of ‘being too big to fail’.

Reflecting on what doesn’t go well is vital to create shared learning in each of those areas. It isn’t something that happens to organisations alone, but within a bigger picture. It needs to be done carefully. Encouraging this shared reflection has been central to the design of the Digital R&D Fund, including the evaluation methods. Many people in the arts feel a pressure to make out that nothing ever really goes wrong. Jon Kingsbury, Director of Creative Economy Programmes at Nesta, suggests this stems from a funding mix which discourages free sharing of mistakes and lessons learned. The partners in the R&D Fund wanted to change this, starting with the way they talked about learning: “Being open with the knowledge created and lessons for the wider benefit of the arts sector will encourage others to share experiences with their own digital R&D projects.” Kingsbury argues that more arts funding should be tolerant of failure. This is encouraging, but harder to apply to the majority of arts funding, even given the persuasive argument that it powers a kind of R&D wing for the commercial creative industries.

ACE National Portfolio grants enable excellence and access, and while a ‘success rate’ of 6-7% might be good enough for R&D in the pharmaceuticals industry, it is unlikely to be an acceptable rate of return on core arts grants. Who would want to face a Select Committee and admit “93% of our grantees failed to reach their targets”, unless it was explicitly an experimental fund? There are tweaks that could reduce the amount of gaming in the system. Few would currently tell ACE that their Grants for the Arts-funded project was such a success that they earned more money than predicted, as ACE reserve the right to reduce your grant accordingly. This discourages learning, individually and collectively. Instead of taking money off you, funders should let you keep it towards future development, in return for sharing how you managed it. Let’s not make subsidy a reward for failure but an investment in public learning.

At the heart of people’s reluctance to talk about failure as if it mattered is what writer Brene Brown terms “vulnerability”. This lack of sharing is one reason capital projects seem to often reinvent each other’s mistakes. The considered framework of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts gives a context for shared learning, as evidenced by the honesty and openness of participants so far. They create a safe space, which helps build confidence and uses vulnerability positively. Sharing experiences requires daring, self-confidence and a sense of humour. I saw this in action at a recent discussion about the high expectations surrounding a major new funding programme. As we closed someone commented, “So we’ll all get ready to fail brilliantly then, yes?” and everyone laughed. We stood up a little more empowered for it.

The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts is an experiment in funding, supporting several highly ambitious projects to create individual experiments and collective learning. All involved talk passionately about facilitating learning and the joys of a clear R&D framework. This turns risk from something to be managed to a tool for improvement, as is common in the start up support culture of ‘failing-forward’. Paul Gerhardt draws this key conclusion in his report on the pilot phase of the Fund: “We have also learnt something about risk taking, and how its value outweighs the negative feeling around ‘failure’.” Jon Kingsbury talks of championing those who admit failings as heroes.

I asked Simon Mellor, Executive Director of Arts for ACE, about failure, and he quoted the exact words of Samuel Beckett above my desk. The notion of “failing better” is implicit in the arts, Mellor believes. The R&D Fund creates what Mellor calls “a structured environment and mindset for research and learning”. He contrasts this with an attitude to learning which is “too often inchoate and adhoc”. Fund projects define “what success looks like”, identifying targets against which one can test experience. A lack of this systematic, structured approach to learning more widely means much discussion of ‘failure’ or ‘success’ turns into anecdote – be it myth or gossip. Mellor hopes that more projects in the future will build researchers into their teams from the beginning, to make a learning dialogue inherent in the structure of the project. The arts are more prone than some sectors to ‘great man’ myths of charismatic leadership, without putting the methods of such leaders under structured scrutiny so other can benefit.

Beyond helping set the frameworks for peer-to-peer learning, the funding partners strive to be what Kingsbury calls “invisible”. Mellor is clear that ACE should not want everything to work: “if everything worked we’d all be playing too safely”. He is equally sure that one of the key things that can help people talk more comfortably about failure is changing the timeframe considered. Work is often taken to the public too soon, and its future decided upon by immediate reactions.
Creating individual works, business model innovations and organisations alike requires a more iterative process, extending the interest in hack or scratch-and-remake methodologies to whole organisation issues.

The experiences of those involved in the pilot phase of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts suggest the kinds of approaches to shared reflection and learning are welcomed by cultural leaders, who want to embrace risk-taking and serious learning. Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk wanted to create a digital experience that connected people experiencing Sleep No More in New York with individuals online. R&D funding allowed for dreaming and experimentation, leading to something that Senior Producer Colin Nightingale describes as “ridiculously ambitious”. The project proved challenging technically and organisationally, not least in involving teams in three international locations. Nightingale pinpoints a key difference between a test and experimenting in the show itself, one with the public involved, another more purely learning. The lack of testing and other issues meant the experiences did not happen as envisaged.

Nightingale does not, however, consider the project a failure. “The learning was huge so it was a massive success.” The lessons learnt and the technical development informed Punchdrunk’s next major project at the Aldeburgh Festival. This time, they used known, robust technology, albeit in new and different ways. They were able to build in face-to-face time, and to deliver the kind of storytelling experience to digital audiences that they aspire to in all their work. Nightingale’s advice is “to reach for the stars but make sure you are asking the right questions for the audience”. He is clear that playing safe is actually the most dangerous thing possible for Punchdrunk. “It’s in the culture of the company that ‘That was alright’ as a response is actually the biggest failure of all.”

For Carolyn Royston, former Head of Digital Media at the Imperial War Museum, its Social Interpretation project was an opportunity to avoid “the demand for perfection”. The project broke new ground technically and in public involvement, but was not without challenges in both areas. It was however, delivered using an agile methodology, testing early and then making changes. This iterative process proved much more difficult to do in a live and public environment than behind the scenes.

For Royston, failing well means asking the right questions at the start. As she puts it, “understanding the landscape is key to understanding the real risks”. Knowing the things to look for also helps with spotting warning signs early, which helps avoid the sometimes painful aspects of learning from experience. R&D processes, Royston believes, must feed back into the wider ambitions of the organisation if public money is being used, so that the returns can be clear, without an obligation to be successful every time. She points out that funders also need to develop the skills of this kind of reflection, to enable organisations to share learning well, especially in the digital arena.

In a skeptical mood, tired of the right to fail, you might ask “Why learn from failure when you can learn from success?” Neuroscientists at MIT have found that brain cells in monkeys track the success of behaviour, and become more finely tuned when a behaviour is successful. Failure made little or no difference to either the brain or the behaviour. There are counter arguments that back up a focus on learning from things that don’t go as planned. According to Harvard academics Francesca Gino and Gary P. Pisano, success tends to not inspire the kind of questions that difficulty does. They term this “failure to ask syndrome”. Even if we review successful projects, they found, we are likely to be over-confident about our own abilities, giving more credit to our own actions than to environmental factors.

Research into After Action Reviews, often used in military situations where the stakes of failure can hardly be higher, suggests a way forward. Shmuel Ellis from Tel Aviv University found that After Action Reviews are useful whether an exercise has succeeded or failed. We learn more from successes, though, by focusing on what didn’t work within them than by what did. But soldiers who discussed both successes and failures learned at higher rates than those who discussed just failures.

So we need to move on from failure as taboo. We need to not be afraid of learning from success, but be sure to consider weaknesses within success. We need to think about how we extract maximum learning from what we do, in R&D and ‘everyday’ situations, because that’s what leads to change. How to do this is as much about bravery, risk-taking and “ridiculous ambition”, as some projects are. We should reflect together rather than alone, to avoid over-emphasising either success or failure, and our roles in it. We should begin by trying to learn some lessons beforehand, from what others have done and learnt. We should know what success and failure mean to us, and track what we do and what happens closely. We should remember genuine failure usually has consequences as well as learning outcomes and find ways to involve the people bearing those consequences in our reflections. We should champion those who share their learning.

My Tom Phillips/Samuel Beckett postcard is next to one of Martin Luther King. King was less interested in the F word and more interested in the C word: Change. Can we be as serious as that about what we do, no matter how playfully we do it? The successful use of failure rests in the change we make from it, despite the truth of Beckett’s other words: “Ever tried. Ever failed.” That means taking failure seriously, not shrugging it off, counting the cost of the learning as well as what’s gained from it. Not learning, not paying heed, would really be failure.

Mark Robinson heads up the arts consultancy Thinking Practice and was Executive Director of Arts Council England, North East, from 2005 – 2010. His new book of poems How I Learned to Sing is published by Smokestack Books. Follow him via @ThinkinPractice.