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Challenging the perception of failure

In this guest blog, Stacey Blease provides an insightful ad thoughtful view of a recent event - 'Failure Friday'.

Perhaps the title of the ‘Failure Friday’ event on first glance could be perceived as negative. However, having experienced many positives from ‘failures’ I was curious about the University of Salford’s event within their Festival of Research. The aim of the event was to challenge the misconception that failure should be avoided and something to be ashamed of, instead highlighting how failure can bring insight and inspire action which are building blocks to success.

From my experience within the veterinary profession, it could benefit from being more open about ‘failure’ to help our patients and equally as importantly, ourselves. This is why I was curious to learn more from other industries on their approach to ‘failure’. The first part of this summary focuses on the challenging the perception of failure and challenging expectations.


The two speakers representing the science showcase, Sara Namvar and Marija Krstic-Demonacos both spoke about the pressure of the ‘traditional route’ in science starting with a bachelor degree, masters, PhD, post-doc and fellowship. Deviation from this conventional pathway can be perceived as a ‘failure’. The parallel in the veterinary profession which sprung to mind at this point was the perception that not being a vet or vet nurse in practice is deemed a ‘failure’. Social norms have a lot to answer for. Being content with our own choices and responding to changes in your priorities at different times in your life is not a failure if it works for you. There are lots of vets and nurses working within teaching, research, government and pharmaceutical companies who are all contributing to the profession. There are vets and nurses who have chosen to leave the profession.

Choosing a different path is not a failing in my book.


Ursula Hurley and Davina Whitnall from the University of Salford Doctoral School spoke about embedding a culture of ‘failing better’ starting at the induction week. They shared their ‘fail better’ manifesto which included acknowledging that failure is present within academia, address fear of failing, supporting life-long learning, understanding that failing is a learning opportunity. I must say, I was impressed. I remember during my first week of my PhD someone asking me why on earth would a qualified vet want to do a PhD. Lots of reasons!


We were introduced to the ‘Wall of Failure’ and were invited by Ursula and Davina to write down a failure we had experienced on a post-it note and stick it on the wall. We were asked to partner up and tell the story about our failure with our partner making notes on the narrative. Next we were provided with a piece of paper titled, ‘Silence your inner critic by consciously adopting positive vocabulary’. We were asked to visit the ‘Failure Reframed’ wall armed with a new post-it note which described a positive productive outcome of the ‘failure’. A simple but very effective exercise.


Challenging the way we perceive failure is essential to be able to learn from the experience. By reframing it, it can be perceived as less of a failure and more as a positive step forward which is the focus of the second part of the summary on accepting failure as a normal aspect of progression.


Normalising failure

The second part of the summary of the University of Salford’s ‘Failure Friday’ event focuses on normalising and accommodating failure as a component of any process. Professor Karl Dayson, Dean of Research at the University of Salford stated that it is important to have the self-confidence to say that at some point along the way, failures will be encountered but they need to be accommodated in the plan. The example he used to illustrate this point was the approach to car manufacturing in the USA and Japan in the 1970s. The American car manufacturers were focused on producing a large quantity of cars quickly compared to the Japanese companies who tested their cars at several different points within the production process. By continually testing the cars and determining failures throughout the process allowed for processes to be amended according to the feedback. Japanese car manufacturers where slower in producing cars when compared to their USA counterparts but in the long term, the Japanese cars had, and still have a reputation for being reliable cars. The process might be slower but the end result was worth it.


Musical composers Alan Williams and Dan Mattix work with the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media described their working process in a similar way to Japanese car industry. They spoke about ‘failure’ in the arts being an integral step in developing successful compositions. This reminded me of a keynote presentation by Dr Gregory Wolfus’ from Tufts at Tech Community Clinic (Massachusetts, USA) at the VetEd Symposium who explained that at the end of each rotation the students are asked to share and reflect on any mistakes or things which could have been improved. Allocating time to reflect on the progress resonates in music composition, car manufacturing, self-development and could benefit lots of different teams within a wide range of industries.


Lecturer in TV and Radio Production, Lyndon Saunders introduced attendees to a module within a course he teaches on called, ‘Docs Without Rules’. Lyndon explained that he observed a trend of students playing it safe when it came to producing a documentary. With his colleague, they decided to revamp their approach to provide space and a platform to be creative by trying new approaches without fear and daring to be different.


Robert Richie who is Head of Organisational Development at the University of Salford shared ‘The Salford Behaviours’ that describe behaviour traits which are encouraged at the university.


Interestingly, ‘daring’ was listed as one of the behaviours so in the same way ‘Docs Without Rules’ was encouraging students to try different approaches, this same message is being echoed to the staff members. Robert stated that words are cheap and it is the behaviour and actions people take which are important. I completely agree! You can say you hold particular values but it is peoples’ behaviours and actions that speak louder than words.


The keynote speaker, Professor David Brettle provided a very honest account of his life when he was invited to speak on the topic of, “A Successful Failure”. The running theme of Professor Brettle’s presentation was his ‘mojo graph’. Mojo was used as a measure of success at different stages of his life both professional and personal. David used Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of mojo, “a quality that attracts people to you and makes you successful and full of energy”. David shared the highs and lows of his life to date represented by peaks and troughs on the graph. As a former President of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, Head of Medical Physics and Engineering at Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust and Honorary Professor at the University of Salford it might be easy to assume that David has not experienced setbacks in his mojo. Learning from all of your experiences, both good and less-good, aids progression. David’s mojo peaked with the development of the Little Linac Project. This project was successful in its aim to provide every child in the UK receiving radiotherapy treatment for cancer with a free kit of play bricks to build a model linear accelerator (linac) to alleviate stress and anxiety. When concluding his presentation, a trendline was superimposed which revealed a positive linear trend of his mojo. Professor Brettle’s advice to the audience consisted of pursuing passions and if you are ahead of the time, keep pushing.


Attending Failure Friday was a wonderfully positive experience and I applaud the University of Salford, speakers and attendees for being incredibly honest about their experiences of failure. Turning a negative into a positive is not always easy but the more you do so, the easier it becomes.