Failing forward

13th July 2012 by

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Nobody likes to fail, do they? (…do they…? Answers on a postcard please). At least, I don’t like to fail. When a project hasn’t gone to plan, or ground to a halt, it is very tempting to go erase your mind somewhere in a tub of ice cream or TOWIE. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, sweeping failures under the carpet doesn’t do anyone any good. Because if we can’t share where we went wrong, or what barriers we found, how will others learn who are planning similar projects?

This is where the concept of ‘failshares’ comes in. Over the past few years, organisations such as Givewell have got brave and laid out their shortcomings. People across different sectors have got together and hosted ‘FailFaires’. Engineers Without Borders now release Failure Reports every year and have set up the site Admitting Failure to ensure that the international development community ‘fails forward.’ They define failing forward as:

  1. Operating in a safe environment for testing risky innovative ideas
  2. Recognizing failures early
  3. Admitting failures open and honestly
  4. Learning from these failures
  5. Adapting actions based on the learning in order to improve upon risky innovative ideas

So, in the spirit of failing forward, let me share the story of a project we have been trying to make happen over the past few months – the East London Greener Jobs Pipeline. We aimed for the Greener Jobs Pipeline project to work in partnership with employers, training providers and support agencies to create pathways into employment for approximately 15 young, unemployed people who wanted to work in the green trades. We planned to do this by taking participants through a training programme that encompassed pre-employment skills, vocational skills, financial literacy, wraparound support services, environmental literacy, and an apprenticeship or work placement in trades such as solar roofing, insulation, horticulture and recycling.

About 6 months ago, I wrote of some of the barriers that we were experiencing in trying to make this project happen. The main one was that we were eager to find an employer who could guarantee a work placement or apprenticeship before we recruited for the young people – we figured that there were enough training courses out there that led on to nothing. However, the truth was, we just couldn’t find an employer. We talked to dozens of businesses, but there were no jobs, especially after the FIT cuts. This delayed the project by months, but when we did eventually find an employer – a small, social enterprise that specialised in energy efficiency – we found yet more barriers to do with recruitment. We needed 10 young people to run the training, but when it came down to it, only 3 young people managed to make the registration day. This was despite having met with nearer 20 young people and their key workers who were keen to join the course and who planned to enroll.

So, what went wrong?

  • We were limited to a 16-18 age range because of government funding constraints. This was a really difficult age to outreach for because many at this age were already in education or training (which also made them ineligible for funding). Sadly, we had a lot of interest from 19 year olds that we had to turn away. If our age range had been broader, ‘we would have smashed it’, as one local youth worker from the Prince’s Trust said.
  • The time of year wasn’t that great – some young people who were interested in the course were about to sit their GCSEs, so our training started too early for them.
  • Working with ‘NEET’ young people can mean things don’t always go to plan - on the registration day, four confirmed attendees were absent due to: broken ribs, being arrested, housing problems and family problems.
  • The reliability of key workers – we often found that communicating directly with the young people was more efficient than trying to pin down their key workers – not the way round you want it to be. A couple of key workers were supposed to escort their young people to the registration day, but didn’t pick them up.
  • ‘Not another short course…’ - there is a real sense that young people can be jostled from one low-level course to another and not gain a meaningful qualification. Although the pipeline participants would have completed some pre-apprenticeship course content they were not gaining the full qualification, due to time constraints.
  • Unsure work placement offer- the above point was overcome with the provision of a guaranteed work placement. However, at the last minute our employer changed their offer of paid work from 3 weeks to 1-2 days – not enough to pull in young people when other courses with higher level qualifications being offered.

With lessons absorbed about partnerships, age of participants and timing, we hope that roll-out will now take place in autumn 2012. In the meantime we have been providing a training and employment signposting service to the young people who showed interest. We have helped, signposted and offered advice to 12 young people and 4 youth workers on other training and employment options. 4 of the young people have now applied for recommended courses and we remain in contact with the others and continue to send opportunities when they arise.

Although the project didn’t go ahead as planned, we have learnt important lessons which can be used when tried again later this year. The most important lesson is that there is a real need for this type of project. There are many young people who have slipped through the net, and even this project – which aims to engage with young people facing barriers to employment – has built in requirements that have been barriers to their participation.

Next time, we hope to use this learning so that we can:

  • Increase the age range
  • Start at a more appropriate time of year
  • Ensure that we only partner with an employer who can be truly involved in the design of the process, and that has capacity to provide paid work placements or apprenticeships
  • Ensure our training offer includes meaningful accreditation and qualifications

So, there you have it. Not everything works out. But we feel it’s important to share, as there are other people out there working towards the same goal of creating green jobs and skills for young people. It’s inevitable that approaches will be duplicated, but that’s only a good thing if we know that those approaches work!

Taking the time to examine the successes and failures of different aspects of our work also acknowledges the complexity of what we are trying to do. If it was so easy, the world would be saved by now, and we’d all have green and decent jobs. Amirite? Complex problems need complex solutions, and I feel like we’re on our way to figuring some of those solutions out.

 

6 Responses to “Failing forward”

  1. Jamie says:

    Great analysis and very refreshing to see an examination of failures rather than always seeing a positive spin regardless of real outcomes. I’d be interested to hear more about how this project compares with similar ones in the US, especially considering that Obama has invested in creating new jobs. Attempting to run a green jobs program in the UK where that stimulus is not present, is always going to be tough.

  2. What Jamie said – very refreshing to see truthful analysis. A very clever chap up here in Manchester taught me the following, which we use all the time now. He got it from some (other) business coach, and it revolves around four questions –

    what went well?
    what didn’t go well?
    what, with the benefit of hindsight, would you have done differently?
    therefore, what are you going to start doing differently now?

    Has really helped us make new mistakes, instead of the same old ones…

  3. Hanna says:

    Thanks guys – really nice to have support in this! Jamie – very good question about the US. In California, when I went last year to do some research, it seemed that numbers were small, but they had at least got the programmes off the ground, because they were literally swimming in the stimulus funding and could afford to pay trainees during the training and for their tools etc. I think there was a real worry about what would happen when the stimulus funding ran out. Also, because the US market is more closed out there, it is arguably easier to put together programmes like this, as there are less actors to involve.

  4. Alex says:

    Really interesting idea and something that could be a starting point for organisations in every industry to collaborate and address the challenges they share. To include the end user and other stakeholders in these discussions could be more powerful still.

  5. Echo says:

    Thank you for a positive and motivating report. The only failure is the failure to try. Giving up is not failing. And giving up does not mean giving up. Work with what is, not with what isn’t. We can all learn from this and aim for gain in trying again.

  6. Andy says:

    Great to read openness and honesty about this stuff. Everyone should be writing about their failures! Goodness knows I’ve had a few. But this is so helpful for others – particularly those working in similar fields.

    There is a parallel in academic research – research journals won’t publish a paper about a negative or inconclusive result. It’s crazy – seeing what didn’t work is so super useful!


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