From failure cafés to rapid prototyping

by Sarah Younas, Digital Producer, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

As part of the GIFT Action Research, we wanted to experiment with the concept of failure. ‘Failure’, however, turned out to be problematic and we ended up doing rapid prototyping as a ‘safer’ way to encourage a more innovative culture.

What did you want to find out?

We were interested in creating the conditions for testing out new ideas, reducing risk aversion and chipping away at the idea of perfection and that projects cannot be revealed until they are ‘finished’. We wanted to create a culture where the ‘imperfect’ and the ‘unfinished’ are tested with the public in a cycle where products and projects are constantly being improved as a result of feedback. We were interested in eradicating the notion that ‘failure’ is a dirty word and something to be ashamed of. We wanted to champion failure and show that it is essential to success and learning.

What did you do?

Originally, we wanted to run a social session for our staff and the cultural sector to celebrate failure. We thought it could be a late event, ran as a stand-up night, with a range of commissioned speakers/thinkers and open mic spots. We decided to scale it back and talked about running a ‘failure café’ for staff only, where they could come and discuss either personal or professional failure. This did not work out and we ended up just running a small playful rapid prototyping session for staff using LittleBits to invent our own pieces.

Was it successful?

The failure café did not work out. It made people feel nervous and in hindsight, I can understand why. We did not manage to get past talking about it and test it. The rapid prototyping experience brought people along but it brought along the same group of people who are always willing to try new things. The session was fun and it helped engage people in the theme of failure – in that if something does not work, you need to tweak and tinker. But one session alone cannot accomplish much.

What did you learn?

In hindsight, the failure café was probably not the best approach to take. Whilst we are interested in repositioning the notion of failure, starting by asking people (who do not see the term in a positive light) about their failures is too much. There is a huge barrier surrounding language and assuming that everyone has the same understanding as you do. Many people consider failure as negative and if they admit to it, it will have consequences for them. We have not done the groundwork to allow for a reframing of this perspective yet, so we cannot start there. We need to work towards creating the conditions for the edges to soften. Even though we think that we need to do it more and in lots of different ways, we believe carving out a space for play, tinkering and testing is a good approach in the hope that it will encourage new ideas, risk taking and iteration. From the small amount of engagement we had, we know that we need to advocate and infiltrate other spaces in order to be heard as emails can and will be ignored. But we also know that you cannot convert everyone and nor should you waste all your energy on trying to do so.

What surprised you?

The thing that was most surprising was that the conversation we had about the failure café was very much just a conversation. We did not actually test the idea even though we are a group of people who make up a cross-departmental network designed to generate new ideas and make them happen. I can take a guess and say that yes, probably many people across the organisation would not have come along and would not have shared their failures, but what if they had? Where could we have gone next? Could we have done something radical for our organisation? Something that would have given us a little more kinetic energy to try something different? I am pleased with what we have done in hosting a prototyping session as the start of something but it still feels very safe and it is really about where we go next.

What methods or tools did you use?

LittleBits – electronic building blocks. They are magnetic bits that snap together to turn ideas into working inventions. See this TED talk from founder Ayah Bdeir.

What other resources did you use?

I am extremely fascinated by the work of Lifelong Kindergaten (LK) at MIT. LK is spearheaded by Mitchel Resnick and they are the team that created Scratch. Their approach is something that I use in a lot of my work and a culture that I am trying to embed in my organisation. It is essentially the idea that as a child in kindergarten you are given the freedom to play, to get messy, to tinker etc. And this is what helps children to learn and be creative. Somewhere along the line you lose that freedom and you do not get to play around anymore. And you do not get to be creative or creativity is something that is lost or is undervalued. Lifelong Kindergarten puts the emphasis on play in order to create. They have an excellent rapid prototyping method, which is simply to: imagine, create, play, share, reflect, repeat. I also really got a lot out of Miguel Sicart’s book ‘Play Matters.’