Learning how to fail productively

Posted on January 31, 2011 by Janet Coats

I was discussing my recent blog post about the need for networks and safety nets with Patterson’s President and CEO Debra Jacobs last week.

We were saying that we all need connection, no matter how brilliant we believe our idea is or how sure we are of our purpose. I told Debra that had been one of the most difficult parts of my transition out of the newsroom. Working largely alone after years as part of a crowd has sometimes left me feeling a bit isolated.

The need for connection is never more acute than when you aren’t sure of your direction. After years in the newsroom, I felt pretty confident in my news judgments and my leadership abilities. Figuring out the direction for Patterson’s New Media Journalism Initiative has been a lot tougher: the need is great, and there is no one model for how I should approach my work.

That has meant going down the wrong road sometimes. When that has happened, I have tended to feel defeated by it – once a perfectionist, always a perfectionist. I told Debra I thought part of what I needed to learn was how to fail productively – and she laughed and said that my work with this initiative has certainly given me plenty of opportunity for that!

This brings me back to a comment on my last blog post from Nicole Hollway. Nicole is the general manager of the St. Louis Beacon. I was Nicole’s coach in the Knight Digital Media Center Leadership Fellows program, but I’m absolutely certain that I got more than I gave out of that relationship.

The Beacon is one of the entrepreneurial sites to watch, because they are focused holistically on their mission. They set goals not just for their editorial content, but for their approach to finances, technology and measurement based on a common organizational mission. Beyond setting goals, they are absolute fanatics about tracking progress. It is their focus on metrics that is allowing them to adjust their direction and hone in on what is working.

Nicole and her colleagues aren’t just cutting a path through the territory of building a digital news organization, they are creating a map for themselves. By being rigorous about testing their ideas, they are documenting what works for their organization in a variety of situations. Just as importantly, they aren’t burying the ideas that didn’t work; they are documenting and learning from them, as well.

In her response to my safety net post, Nicole said that for her, it is vital to remember that “there are many ways to skin a cat – just because one way fails doesn’t mean there’s no way from point A to point B. The key is to fail forward fast – and learn!’’

When I was first an editor, I kept quotes to inspire me in my desk drawer. Most of them had something to do with standing your ground – a message I desperately needed as a young leader.

For many of us who grew up in perfectionistic cultures, it’s time for a new quote in the desk drawer. We don’t need to learn how to stand our ground. We need to study up on how to fail and learn from it. The Patterson Foundation is trying to model this behavior in all of our initiatives – taking smart risks, examining our failures, learning and trying again.

With that in mind, today I put Nicole’s quote in my desk drawer.

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