Failure. We all know it’s good for us. We learn from failure, right? In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s dad says “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” But sometimes failure, like falling, isn’t much fun (although, just like falling, sometimes it is fun for the other people around you). Sometimes in our jobs we have to report our failures to someone. And sometimes the politics of our jobs makes reporting failure a definite problem.
In the NEO office we like to start our meetings by reporting a recent failure. I think it’s a fun thing to do because I think my failures are usually pretty funny. But Cindy has us do it from a higher motivation than getting people to laugh. Taking risks is about being willing to fail.
Why failure matters in evaluation
In general we are all really good at measuring our process (the activities we do) and not so good at measuring outcomes (the things we want to see happen because of our activities). This is because we have a lot of control over whether our activities are done correctly, and very little control over the outcomes. We want to measure something that shows that we did a great job, and we don’t want to measure something that might make us look bad. That’s why we find it preferable to measure something we have control over. It can look like we failed if we didn’t get the results we wanted, even if the work at our end was brilliant.
But of course outcomes are what we really care about (Steering by Outcomes: Begin with the End in Mind). They are the “what for?” of what we do. What if you evaluated the outcomes of some training sessions that you taught and you found out that no one used the skill that you taught them. That would be sad and it might look like you wasted time and resources. But on the other hand, what if you don’t measure whether or not anyone ever uses what you taught them, and you just keep teaching the classes and reporting successful classes, never finding out that people aren’t using what you taught them. Wouldn’t that be the real waste of resources?
So how do you report failure?
I think getting over our fear of failure has to do with learning how to report failure so it doesn’t look like, well, failure. The key is to stay focused on the end goal: we all really want to know the answer to the question “are we making a difference?” If we stay focused on that question, then we need to figure out what indicators we can measure to find the answer. If the answer is “no, we didn’t make a difference” then how can we report that in a way that shows we’ve learned how to make the answer “yes?” How can we think about failure so it’s about “learning to pick ourselves up?” or better yet, contributing to your organization’s mission?
One way is to measure outcomes early and often. If you wait until the end of your project to measure your outcomes, you can’t adjust your project to enhance the possibilities of success. If you know early on that your short-term outcomes are not coming out the way you hope, you can change what you’re doing. So when you do your final report, you aren’t reporting failure, you’re reporting lessons learned, flexibility and ultimately success.
Here’s an example
Let’s say you’re teaching a series of classes to physical therapists on using PubMed Health so they can identify the most effective therapy for their patients. At the end of the class you have the students complete a course evaluation, in which they give high scores to the class and the teachers. If you are evaluating outcomes early, you might add a question like: “Do you think you will use PubMed Health in the next month?” This is an early outcome question. If most of them say “no” to this question, you will know quickly that if you don’t change something about what you’re doing in future classes, it is unlikely that a follow-up survey two months later will show that they had used PubMed Health. Maybe you aren’t giving examples that apply to these particular students. Maybe these students aren’t in the position to make decisions about effective therapies. You have an opportunity to talk to some of the students and find out what you can change so your project is successful.
You’ve tried everything, but you still don’t have the results you wanted to see. The good news is, if you’ve been collecting your process and outcomes data, you have a lot of information about why things didn’t turn out as hoped and what can be done differently. Reporting that information is kind of like that commercial about how to come in late to a meeting. If you bring the food, you’re not the person who came late, you’re the person who brought breakfast. If you report that you did a big project that didn’t work, you’re reporting failure. If you report that things didn’t work out the way you hoped, but you have data-based suggestions for a better use of organizational resources that meet the same goal–then you’re the person who is working for positive change that supports the organization, and have metaphorically brought the breakfast. Who doesn’t love that person?