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Creating A Culture Of Psychological Safety Through The Festival Of Failure

zoom background for festival of failure
zoom background for festival of failure

Psychological Safety & Failure

Teams cannot truly thrive until they are breeding grounds for discovery and learning. Fostering learning requires that each team member can embrace openness; that they can be vulnerable in expressing their thoughts, ideas, and questions. 

We can thank researcher Amy Edmondson for her contributions to this body of work. In the 90s, Edmondson coined the term 'psychological safety'. A team's ability to embrace failure in their work together is a core example of this kind of safety.

In this environment, mistakes are openly discussed. People give voice to difficult issues. Help is easy to ask for. The team is mutually supportive and each individual's unique contribution is valued.

One of the ways we help teams to foster their psychological safety and spirit of experimentation is through the introduction of a ritual we call The Festival of Failure. 

This activity assumes a baseline of psychological safety in a team as it involves being vulnerable in front of the group. As long as that baseline exists, it can be a very effective way to increase closeness and trust on a team as people learn to be less guarded about failure. It works like this...

The Festival of Failure

  • A team meets for an hour each month.
  • Two main props help to create the festival...
    • An item that can be passed around to center attention on the person speaking. We've often found that an item that playfully refers to failure (like a bent spoon) is effective here. If on a video call, everyone can bring their own failure object (perhaps something that's broken in the home / office) and put it on display when it's their turn.
    • A banner of some kind that can be projected on a wall / used as a zoom background that clearly themes the gathering.
  • Each member of the team comes along with an experience from the past month where things didn't go as intended. These should ideally be a mixture of situations where the unintended outcome was a problem and situations where it turned out to be a net positive (if only due to the value of the learning).
  • The group self-organizes to form a sequence of people. When together physically, this is as simple as getting into a circle. When in a virtual setting, it might involve assigning numbers to the ends of people's names (or using the latest version of Zoom, which allows the host to order the participants on the screen and then 'push' that view to participants - creating a consistent sequence for everyone).
  • Starting with the first participant, place 4 minutes on the clock and ask them to describe the failure, sharing...
    • The context
    • What happened
    • The result
    • What they / others learned
  • When they're done, they stand up, take a bow and everyone claps.
  • The sharer then passes the failure object (bent spoon etc...) to the next person in the sequence. If on a video call, they should name the next person in the sequence and put their own failure object out of sight.

Reflections

When convening this ritual, it's particularly important to invite new hires. This sends a clear message that mistakes and failures in the organization are opportunities to learn and grow and never sources of shame.

Holding these meetings on a regular, monthly cadence further contributes to this normalization effect (as well as providing a fun and unique activity to help teammates feel more connected).

Teams that acknowledge failure in this way (and with the implied changes in language and framing) will tend to see boosts in the essential qualities of resilience, courage, humility and empathy.

If you have an opportunity to try this out, we'd love to hear how it goes. If you'd like some help with creating psychological safety in your organization, check out this workshop or reach out for a consultation.


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