Hi, I’m Sharon Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at the King’s Fund and today I’m speaking to Dhruti Shah, who is a journalist, a creative practitioner, a poet and a businesswoman. Our topic of discussion is failure and how this often difficult admission can be seen as a learning opportunity. Hi Dhruti.DHRUTI:
Hello, Sharon, how are you?SHARON:
Yes, I’m good, thank you. Thank you for joining the podcast. You’ve had a really interesting career path and I’m guessing, like most people, you’ve experienced plenty of failure along the way. Can you talk about what failure is and why we aren’t that open to it?DHRUTI:
I think failure’s a really fascinating word and in fact I’m a big fan of etymology so first off I’m just going to tell you what the etymology is, so the origins. And it was first recorded in the dictionary in 1643, but it’s to do with omissions, omissions of occurrence and gaps. And the word goes back to the old French, so way back when, but it’s those gaps that I think are really, really fascinating and the fact that with failure, it’s about “Oh, I didn’t get to do this”, or “This didn’t happen, this isn’t going ahead because something’s missing.” And I think sometimes with failure, it’s really important to remember, it’s a word. And we bring meaning to it and we bring culture to it, so for a lot of people failure is something negative because we’re brought up using that connotation. But is it really something negative or is it something that we can be quite subversive about? And that’s what I love to do, is that I like to be a little bit subversive and have a little bit of fun with words and concepts and when it comes to failure, I’m just like everybody else and I fail a hell of a lot. But at the same time I’m getting very comfortable with the uncomfortable and if you’re doing that, then you’ve got to accept and embrace failure and those gaps.SHARON:
Absolutely and it’s just very emotive, isn’t it, essentially, and sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge when things have gone wrong. What is your approach to failure?DHRUTI:
I fail every single day at something. The beauty of that though is that I think it means that I’m trying to do something. I’m not perfect at all, I get really sad if I get rejection, but the question is, do I get stuck in that moment or do I accept that that didn’t work out and I’ve got to keep going. So I tripped over my trousers the other day, so I clearly failed in being able to put some clothes on like a normal human being in that respect, but at the same time I still continued. I still persevered and I think that is how I try and approach failure. And even in the workplace situation, as long as I keep trying then I have to accept that there’s always going to be some degree of failure. I don’t think there’s anybody in any life culture who has this perfect flat stable line where everything they want goes exactly as it needs to be. And I think that’s really important for us to talk about because if everything you want goes as it needs to be, how are you opening yourself to other ideas or concepts?SHARON:
But it’s true though because you’re not really pushing yourself if things go always well, if things work out in a perfect way you don’t know what it’s like to take risks, almost?DHRUTI:
Yes, exactly. And risks are really, really important for us to be able to move forward. And there’s that concept that comes out around growth mindsets. Like how can you grow if you’re not taking risks and trying things out of that comfort zone. I really think failure shouldn’t be considered something negative, I think it should be considered something that’s part of the process, something that you factor in so that you can keep moving. And be like, “Okay, do you know what...” I tried to write a poem the other day, I was like, “I know, I’m going to write this poem about food, I’m going to enter it in for this particular competition.” And I started and I was like, “I can do this” and this was about spice tins actually, and at the end of it I had to be like, “This is a load of rubbish, I wouldn’t want to read it.” I’m glad I got these thoughts out of my head because I don’t want to actually return to them again, so they provide value to anybody who wants to read my poetry. And they’re also not fun, I like to have fun poems, so in this instance I actually just ended up recycling the paper, because one recycles nowadays because [inaudible 0:04:40] and I just thought, “I’m not going to do that again and instead I’m going to come up with another concept, because I still actually want to enter this competition, I still want to write about food, I still want to play with this.”
But I tried something, it didn’t work at all. But that at least is now out the way so now I can try something and maybe it won’t work again, but at least I’m trying and I think that’s really important, again for failure and for moving forward and having that growth mindset.SHARON:
And do you think that’s something that is quite natural to people who are creative or do you think if you aren’t in that kind of creative industry, do you see it differently?DHRUTI:
I actually do think it’s a learned behaviour and I do think it’s because you end up understanding what other people’s motives and meanings are. And I don’t always think that something like failure will be natural to a creative until they come across the concept of what is failure. And we probably learn that when we’re kids, but yet you can be creative at any age, some people don’t tap into their creativity until they’re perhaps at a much older age or they don’t return to it because it comes out of them or because they decide to do something else. But then saying that, I know people who are accountants, I’m not an accountant, I wish I was in a way because then I’d understand figures a bit more, but I have professional envy, nice envy of them, because I think they’re so imaginative with the way that they’re able to deal with the accounts, the way that they’re able to find play in something that they clearly enjoy. And just because I don’t fall into that element of creativity that perhaps you and I would think is traditional, they still pursuit it. And they’ve probably failed, they’re probably like “These maths don’t add up, let me try something different.” I hope I haven’t just failed in answering your question, this is the issue, I will just go off on a tangent and perhaps fail in responding. Or perhaps I’m answering because we’re experimenting, I don’t know, but it’s important as a creative to embrace failure, but I would never want to say to someone “You have to understand failure is important.” They have to take ownership of that themselves and what failure is to them and what success is to them as well.
Yes, so moving the concept of failure into the workplace, there’s so many projects going on at any given time across an organisation, and they’re not all going to land and when the stakes are high in terms of time and investment, what are the tensions that are caused between expectation versus reality?DHRUTI:
Failure is really, really important. I honestly think that you have to incorporate a failure buffer that if you’re going to try something, you have to accept that there are going to be elements of it that just aren’t going to work in the way that you expect. So going back to that element of expectations. And don’t forget about luck, I often actually think luck plays a strong part and how do you factor in luck? Sometimes that just comes because the circumstances are the right place, the right time. If someone ever says to you, “I can definitely make something go viral”, I always say to them “That’s fascinating because I’m intrigued to know what exactly is it, is it the magic that you have or the links that you have to make something go viral, because a lot of that is based on luck or what people have decided on the day that the algorithms are going to change to this, that or the other. But having freedom to breathe in a workplace environment I think is really, really important, because you have to understand that some things just aren’t going to work.
I’m just going to give a really quick example. I had this book, it’s called Bear Markets and Beyond: A Bestiary of Business Terms, I’ve given it a bit of a plug because why not? But it came from an idea which I submitted when I used to work at the BBC, a long time ago, to something called “The Creative Challenge.” Doesn’t that sound amazing? Come up with an idea, put it forward. And I was like “This is great, it’s a project about animal words in business and we’re going to illustrate it.” Really simple, right? It didn’t win, I don’t think it even came close to winning whatsoever, we got rejection, the illustrator and I. And that on one hand is a failure, right? I tried for something, it didn’t even get accepted, but I also understood that was just one approach, that didn’t mean that the whole project was a dud, that it just wasn’t going to work, it just meant for that audience or for that particular moment in time, for whatever reason, it wasn’t for them. That’s fair enough, I’m sure they picked an amazing project. But then because I really believed in it and I knew there was a gap in the market because I’d looked for something like that and I couldn’t find it, I continued to persevere, I had like 100 rejections for this book, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t follow anything conventional, but the book can now be considered a success.
So on the one hand it’s a failure, if I just left it and think “Oh, okay, nobody wants it, maybe it is a stupid idea”, but instead it was that element of “No, some people do believe in it, let me reframe it. I see there’s a gap in the market so how can I approach that gap in a way that’s innovative? How can I make sure that schoolkids, that families will not be scared of business?” That was always my goal. And I think if you’ve got a goal, an end goal in the workplace, as long as you factor in that failure buffer that some approaches aren’t going to work, I honestly think you can be very, very innovative if you really, really believe in that vision to get there. But failure is important, do not dismiss failure as not allowable.SHARON:
That’s great. And I wonder if how much of that is your tenacious personality as well as luck? If you are a person who might get easily dejected by failure, you might have just gone, “Okay, well, I didn’t even figure on that competition so I’ll just put it in a drawer and close the drawer and never think about it again, it clearly wasn’t a good idea”, so what do you think about maybe the type of person you are, is there something around that or not?DHRUTI:
Yes, I am pretty tenacious, at one point someone was like, “You’re like a rottweiler.” But that’s learnt behaviour, it’s like if you really, really believe in something then I think you can pursue it. And I don’t think I’m special in that respect. The other thing that I think is really important, especially for the workplace environment, is support. It’s having others that are there to lift you when you’re having a programme that’s not particularly working. When you’re having a down day, we’re all going to have down days, when you’ve reached, I think in programming they call it “yak shavings”, but a really stuck point that you need to do in order to be able to move forward. I’m just going to give you another example that I think is also really, really important, in that ages ago I wrote another piece, again at the BBC. And it was about relationship dynamics, I really wanted to write about relations and how things have changed and people reach different milestones nowadays and not all families are 2.4 children etc. My beat that point was the social needs beat and there was a piece that was trending on Twitter about a comedian who wrote a really lovely nuanced tweet about how she’d been dumped. And what was really sad is that she has a cat and the cat loved her boyfriend more than it seemed to love the owner. And so I saw there was a lot of engagement that other people were going through the same thing, I managed to speak to someone who had a parrot, a dog, so we’re looking at different family dynamics. Because a lot of people are very reliant on their pets as companions.
It’s a very good piece by the way. But with the headline, bearing in mind that I come from a social sphere, the headline was “My boyfriend dumped me, so how do I tell the cat?” My Lordy, when we put it out it got ratioed, so in terms of ratio it’s when the responses to it are far more negative than perhaps the original tweet. And it wasn’t because of the content, the journalism was sound, it was because of the headline. The headline is very blunt, very search engine optimisation friendly, some would call it click-SHARON:
Yes. It’s very social, so very good on a posting, but is it appropriate for at that point a BBC News website? A lot of people didn’t consider so and in fact at one point people were like “This is the end of the BBC.” It was not the end of the BBC, can I just give that caveat right now. And so I went “Oh gosh, am I a bad journalist, am I a failure that I’ve gone and created this whirlwind?” I was really dejected, I was really sad, but I had a really great editor who stood up for me, who supported me, who was like “What you’ve done is the right thing.” In fact I see on blogs, people who didn’t like the BBC, what I was representing for various reasons, even they were like “But the piece is good, this is being used as a scapegoat position.” And some people might see it as a failure, but now, and at that point I was like “Oh my gosh, what have I done?” But now I’m like, “But the piece got loads of engagement, the piece got people talking, so therefore is it a failure or is it something that I’ll learn from next time I write a headline, but is actually, as far as I’m concerned, a success?” And I think that reframing is something that keeps me going.
So in terms of “Is that the sort of person I am?” I haven’t always been like that, I’m actually quite shy. I know now we’re talking, but if I know that something that I’m doing is sound or I can justify why I’ve done that and I know there’s support available, it’s so much easier to embrace failures. And I think if people can look around at who they have around them, that they’re cheerleaders, they’re people that will be there to give them solace when things don’t go quite right. I think you can build that up as a shield and you can embrace the failure.SHARON:
That sounds like really good advice, especially when you’re working in a team and you’re collaborating with other members on that team and if maybe one person’s element of the project maybe doesn’t go to plan, it’s about supporting that person to get the right outcomes that you need for that project to go well. When we talk about agile methodologies, there’s that idea of failing fast and how that can actually help the process in creating a good outcome. Can you talk a little bit more about that perhaps?DHRUTI:
So I was talking to a friend of mine about agile methodologies, because I write the way that I speak. You know that phrase, “Is it a bug or is it a feature?” And I think that falls into that idea of agile methodologies and failing fast. In that as long as you try something, surely that’s the big thing. Just put it out there. Factor in that failure buffer, which I’ll keep pushing because I think that’s so important, factor in that sometimes things aren’t going to work, but also be open that as you’re going and you’re doing, that what you’re creating, is it a bug or is it a feature? Is it something we can adapt to and I think that’s so important to include? Again when you’re thinking about examples; bubblewrap. Bubblewrap, when it first came about, it started life as wallpaper, the people who invented it. It didn’t pan out so well. Then they were like “Let’s change it.” Okay, fair enough, because it’s been created now, it exists, it is in existence. So it was then used for greenhouse insulation, I didn’t realise this, I was doing some research and I was like “Oh, I’ve learnt something.”
But now what do we use it as? We use it for packaging. You know why? Because IBM got involved. So IBM then adapted it and changed the bubblewrap, so from wallpaper, greenhouse insulation to packaging. And so it protects what we have and that failing fast, they could have just given up. But the thing is, they kept trying, the people that took it. They kept trying and I think that is one of the key things to remember. You can either remain static and keep the status quo or is it a bug, is it a feature way of thinking?SHARON:
Yes, so it’s about that reframing I guess and I think have you got any ideas of how to foster a culture, because that kind of helps if you’re working in a space where you’re allowed to fail fast, maybe if your workplace has got a more focus on things being right the first time perhaps, or maybe a culture around excellence, how do you deal with that failing fast element of a project?DHRUTI:
There is a really great Stephen Hawking quote. It’s “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking and its greatest failures by not talking.” Talking and communication is so, so important. And that is how you foster a culture that’s innovative, a culture that’s not afraid to fail. The fact that there’s so much shame sometimes, I think, associated with the word “failing.” But that’s the thing. If you talk, if you have conversation, if you have dialogue, if you’re like “Do you know what, I’m trying this out?” Okay, try it out, let’s see what happens. That element of openness and transparency, to a degree, because I know that sometimes there’s commercial concerns involved, but within the team that you’re working with or trusted people, I think that’s so important when it comes to that conversation around failure. If you’re afraid to tell people what you’re up to because you’re afraid of what they might think about you or think that you are perhaps someone lower than you are or your ideas are stupid, then I think we’re in a difficult position. If that culture is fostered, it means you’re going to be missing out. Remember we were talking earlier about gaps and how gaps are really, really important, there’s also this concept of negative space in art where you’ve got perhaps blanks or it’s not the subject of what you’re supposed to be looking at. But yet negative space is just as important as the subject in photography and art. It’s what’s surrounding it, it’s what gives it context. In a way it’s what highlights it.
If you’re trying to foster a culture that embraces failure, you have to factor in things like negative space, so you just take that concept from art and you bring it to whatever field you’re in. And you have to factor in that where there are gaps, where there is omission, you can create play where people can find and experiment, but need to feel that they’re in a safe enough space t be able to do that, that they’re not going to get not particularly constructive criticism, that they’re just going to get shamed for the sake of it. If you’re in workplace environments, even life environments like that, I think it’s much harder then to create new things, to create original things, to keep moving and bring forth exciting things into the world. And that boils back to how do we treat failure?SHARON:
Yes. And you might have the culture, but what if you personally find it hard to let that best practice go or that element of perfectionism, how do you think you can give advice to people who need to work on that perhaps?DHRUTI:
It’s not easy and you’ve not failed if it’s time to take more time in order to be able to work on it. That’s not a failure. The fact you’re even thinking about it is amazing, that’s a baby step, that’s brilliant. I’m proud of you, you might not even know me but I’m proud of you. The fact is, you’re listening to this podcast, the fact is you’re trying. And that in itself is brilliant. You’re doing something a little bit different. And if you feel, “Oh, this isn’t for me”, all it is is finding an approach that you feel comfortable with and that you can bring in those supporters and bring in negotiations so that people support you in order to be able to move forward. Because let’s face it, people are different, we have different dynamics in teams, we have different people, there’s always a degree of conflict. In fact-SHARON:
That’s what you need.DHRUTI:
Yes, that’s what I was going to say. Accept that. If you’re going to have failure, you’re going to also have conflict because things just don’t work. There’s going to be an awkward gel as it were. But never ever take it, if you can, personally. It’s more like, “Okay, some situation didn’t work out, this didn’t work out in those circumstances.” But you’re trying. This is the most important thing, that you are trying. If you can encourage those conversations, that open dialogue, find those trusted people. If you see it as a process, you’re now even more forward than you were 10 minutes ago.SHARON:
That’s really helpful. So say you are listening to this and you’re still a bit of a risk adverse person or you find it difficult failing or the idea of failing, what three ways can anyone use failure as a learning opportunity to enhance their work whatever part of the organisation that they’re in?DHRUTI:
I think that’s a really good question. Three is nice. Three is a very simple way of thinking about things. So have room to have failure; within your team, within yourself as an individual. So I call it the failure buffer, you can call it what you want, honestly, you don’t have to take on my language. Don’t expect perfection, but that falls within the failure buffer, because who knows what perfection is? Talk. Have open dialogue. Have that conversation about the fact that things might not work out in the way that you expect is also important with that caveat. And then what I try and do is see it as a little bit of an adventure. You’re trying something different. It might work out, it might not work out, but you’ve had a little adventure and whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s an experiment, whether it’s getting out of your comfort zone, whether it’s having that conversation that you’re scared of because you’re worried what’s going to come back. But it’s a little adventure compared to the day before. And sometimes I think that idea of gamification can sometimes help people. So you apply it in your work life often and a lot of us we do do gamification in various ways. But apply it to these concepts that perhaps you’re a little bit hesitant about. And sometimes it makes it a little bit easier to understand.
And I think that again goes back to maybe because I think like a kid sometimes. It goes back to that element of play when we’re kids. We’re not born afraid, are we? Maybe, I don’t know, I’m not a scientist, I can’t say that I’m a scientist, but that element of fear, a lot of that comes from culture. And here we’re talking about failure, again these are concepts at the end of the day that we’ve learnt. So go back to play sometimes, go back to that element of innocence and see where it takes you. Innocence with experience.SHARON:
Thanks so much for taking part Dhruti, that was great, and so insightful. And thanks to everyone for listening, I hope that’s helped your approach when it comes to failure. Bye for now.