How can you fail at something when there may be infinite numbers of ways to succeed and just as many not to? Listening to the video and subsequent discussion on last week’s UKIA webinar on “failing well” has got me thinking; about how to fail well obviously, but also about the very definition of failure and how we reconcile trying to make a change with the fact that there may not be a “right way” to make that change if we’re doing something new.
Many routes can lead to a given result. All roads may not lead to Rome but there might be quite a lot that do, especially when you’re building them yourself. And to stretch the analogy even further (sorry!) the road that you end up taking to get to Rome may also influence what Rome looks like in the end.
Change is an iterative process which means that even things that don’t work (those ‘failures’) contribute to the end result. This is something we all know instinctively, and respond to often without even realising it. In your day to day life you try something and if it doesn’t work, you try something else and so on until you figure out what works best for your purpose. As Einstein said (well he didn’t actually say it, but that’s for another blog): “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
The big questions for me are:
How do we embed this iterative process into our ways of working?
As individuals and members of organisations, how can we get better at acknowledging and affirming that in change, improvement and innovation it’s essentially impossible to get it right the first time (or maybe even the second or third) and we need to adjust and tweak and learn as we go?
One way is to build failure into your plans for success. So far so new age, but what does that actually mean?
If you have an idea (Rome) which you think may be the answer to a question, or the solution to a problem, but it hasn’t been tried before, then start by testing a number of ways to get to where you want to go (building the roads). Then, based on the results of those tests, look at what has worked and what hasn’t and refine, pulling together a map as you go to help other people find their way.
Community Education Provider Networks in south London were a big idea from two south London GPs (Dr Nav Chana and Dr Marilyn Plant) who were looking for a solution to a problem; how to create an infrastructure in Primary/Community Care to enable education and training to happen at scale in those settings. Their proposed solution was a network of dispersed providers working together around a shared commitment (education and training of current and future workforce) in order to provide the scale needed to enable a comprehensive education and training infrastructure beyond the four walls of a hospital.
No one knew exactly what our Rome looked like or how to get there. Rather than try to build it in a day (see what I did there?) we decided to rapidly test and evaluate four different roads and then use the lessons from those tests to refine the goal. We hoped to draw a map which others could use if they decided to embark on the same journey.
We evaluated the progress of these roads after three months and assessed how effective we thought they would be in terms of getting us to where we wanted to go. This also gave us a chance to reflect on and refine the big idea; looking at the four approaches helped us to understand what we wanted Rome to look like.
We wanted a network designed around a whole population rather than a specific disease or condition and that meant one of four roads wouldn’t get us there. We also figured out that we wanted the network to support the whole workforce not just the medical workforce and that ruled out a second road. The remaining two roads showed promise and seemed like they were being built in the direction we wanted to go so we stopped work on the first two and diverted resources to the ones which would get us to our newly refined Rome.
It didn't mean that the other two roads weren’t good roads, in their own right, but in the context of getting us where we wanted to go they were ‘failures’. Most importantly, they helped us refine the idea and better plan how we were going to get there.
Looking back on this now I can see that we took a classic QI approach to change - plan, do, study, act and repeat. So what’s my learning? Build failure into your plans for success. Test, refine, test again; and allow some of the tests to fail. And remember, Rome wasn’t build in a day!