The lovely Rachel Fisher and I ran a “Confessional” session at HACT’s recent HouseParty event. It was a liberating, interesting, and dare I say it, really quite amusing session. It was billed as the antidote to all those best practice seminars you’ve ever been to. And probably wondered either “how on earth did that happen” or equally “that’ll never work in my organisation”. If you ever wonder about your own projects or organisation and think “I can’t possibly say this”… don’t fret – it turns outs we all have similar thoughts.
We kicked things off with a quick agreement on some house rules:
- Chatham House (no attribution outside the room of the organisations involved). In practice we mostly went with not naming organisations at all – we wanted to make this an open & sharing session, without fear of causing embarrassment to our colleagues and organisations, both past and present.
- No throwing things. Insults or bricks. This was intended to be an honest, sharing, learning forum, not a place to castigate each other for misdeeds.
And then off we went on our voyage into the unknown. We’d wondered if people would be willing to share their mistakes or mis-deeds, so Rachel and I had agreed to kick things off with a few of our own (we have *plenty*). But no need to worry, we weren’t alone. Pretty much everyone in the room had something to share. Now if you’re hoping for a juicy write-up here, I’m sorry to disappoint – what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional. But a few themes did emerge, which are worth sharing…
Quite a few confessors spoke of producing non-authentic communications. Or to give it a less dressed up expression – using “ringers” in print publications or film footage. The challenges of hitting deadlines and needing to get the ‘right’ image had led to the use of stock images, or colleagues kids and staff as stand-ins for customers. Interestingly, these were mostly “things that happened a good while ago when we were early in our careers”, and although our confessors felt it wasn’t quite right at the time, they couldn’t (or didn’t feel able) to flag it up. We reflected that in the digitally connected era, it was easier to get the right images in the first place, but also that it just wasn’t something we couldn’t countenance doing any more – secrets can’t be kept! The bigger lesson learned was that as we find ourselves in more senior roles, managing people, teams & projects, we need to listen out for the quiet voice that might be saying “hang on a minute…..”.
One confessor spoke about being involved in a significant national policy initiative, and how they started out as a ‘believer’, and really thought this would make a positive difference. But as time rolled on, and the initiative rolled out, they came to feel that it wasn’t working, and actually was causing more problems than it solved. But still they carried on doing the job – it had become a ‘runaway-train’ that felt impossible to stop. We talked about that sense of things not being right, and how that feeling grows, and eventually tips into knowing its wrong. And how difficult it can be to stop something big. The big lesson emerging there, was that when we’re designing big projects or initiatives, there’s a need to build in opportunities to pause, gather data, get feedback, and make it OK to raise a question, consider whether to change course, stop, or re-group.
There was real big picture stuff, about loosing touch with original purpose & mission, and the regret that was later felt in having done so. And smaller tactical stuff, like how too much enthusiasm for a thing (maybe a new digital thing?) could lead to concern that your judgement could be clouded to things going wrong. And pet projects anyone? To quote one participant “a toolkit? who were we kidding… we’ll produce a toolkit, like anyone was *actually* going to use it”.
I’ve been wondering about the merits of setting up a #myworstpractice confessional website. Where we could all contribute our stories (anonymously if we wish). Learning from what what goes wrong feels like something we should get better at doing. The big stuff, like the Cosmopolitan / risk / governance stuff gets a thorough review and write-up. But I’m thinking more of the everyday, small stuff that doesn’t bring organisations down or breaks careers, but that could be easily avoided if we shared more. Let me know in the comments if you think its a runner.
For anyone thinking about healthy organisational culture, I’d encourage you to think about how you deal with failures, mistakes, and more widely doing a retrospective review. Cultures that only reward success and condemn failure encourages the burying of mistakes. Openly looking with a spirit of positive enquiry is more productive.
Big props to all our confessors for sharing their stories. The nervous (occasionally raucous) laughter belied a more significant thing. We all shared a more vulnerable bit of ourselves in that hour, and are all the richer for it. Thank-you one and all.