We did everything we could but sometimes that just isn’t enough

Probably worth a read.jpgA journalist called Kathryn Schulz has written a book about getting things wrong (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error).

In it, she explores the well-observed phenomenon of how frequently people get things totally wrong.

An experiment, first conducted in 1902, of two actors faking a shooting in the street – subsequently oft repeated – has shown this to be an all too human, universal, condition.

Despite being eye witnesses, people remember details and “facts” that did not occur, such as seeing blood when there was none. And it would seem that folk have a preconceived notion of how things ought to be, or have been, even when cursory observation would indicate otherwise.

There is a grace to admitting that you are wrong about anything. And such grace certainly seems to be denied to anyone in public life.

In such pursuits of knowledge as pharmaceutical research, say, or road safety design, we make allowances for human error, devising systems to allow for it.

But in public life we treat all mistakes as shameful and deride those who change their minds as “u-turners” or inconsistent. It has to be unhealthy to deny the possibility of learning from our mistakes. Perhaps the deterrent is the serious dollop of humility required.

That we (me, my Board, my team) were wrong about BURA is a painful certitude now, but only a few weeks ago I would have sworn that we’d taken every measure possible to equip ourselves for new world.

We’d scaled back, refocused on the customer and radically regrouped. But you know, sometimes the tide just goes out.

In the six weeks prior to us voting for voluntary liquidation, the BURA team had contacted 100 people who had purchased places on BURA training courses in the previous 12 months.

In all cases, bar none, the training received was described as “good”, “very good” or “excellent”. In all cases, bar none, did the recipients say they would recommend the courses to others.

But – and this is the killer “but” – in all cases, bar none, when asked whether they would be booking places again this year (for themselves or for others in their organisations) the answer came back emphatically and consistently “no”. There are just no budgets for CPD type activity in the UK right now. And we had to accept it.

So there you have it. You can do something brilliantly but if the circumstances, the environment in which you operate, doesn’t sustain that activity then you are firmly placed in the wrong. If you’re in the wrong then it is as well that you admit this as quickly as possible and with as much grace as you can muster.

Those who know me will tell you that grace and humility are not my longest suits. But I am doing my very best. We were in the wrong place. It may be a painful truth to face but hindsight is a most exact science.

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One Response to We did everything we could but sometimes that just isn’t enough

  1. Edward Harkins 31 August, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    This is such an important posting, and your willingness to make it is admirable. In our professional cultures in the UK we do not seem to have the facility or ability to provide blame-free space for practitioners and policy advisors to come out more openly and say ‘we got it wrong, so what can we all learn from that’. We, consequently, miss out on so much learning and (hard) accumulated wisdom.

    When doing my MBA in the mid 90s I had the good fortune to have been tutored in the finance department by Professor Briggs (aka ‘Briggsy’) from Oz . He specialised in using past corporate failures as a teaching and learning tool. Almost all his material, however, had to come from long-past episodes where the facts only came to light, almost incidentally, as a consequence of legal action on some matter of litigation or restitution or other (see Maxwell, or British Midlands M1 fatal airplane crash in the 1980s, etc. etc.).

    Aside of the learning and wisdom forgone in this scenario, another factor applies particularly to professionals in the regeneration field; because they are not allowed, or not able, or not willing to acknowledge past mistakes (and learning) on ‘the big things’, residents in their current target communities may be not holding the professionals in high regard or perceiving them as potential partners in a true relationship of trust.

    This could be especially the case where residents have lived through (endured?) previous failed attempts at regeneration – regeneration that was so often done to the residents, not with them. An indication of this, perhaps, is the accumulating anecdotal evidence across the UK of widespread alienation and disengagement among community and voluntary sector activists in the regeneration and wider Community Planning fields – alienation and apathy that is so wrongly described by many professionals and policy advisors as ‘apathy’.

    We need to prevail in the promotion of space for honest admission of failure and shortcomings in pursuit of learning and development in regeneration. Regeneration Forums need to be ‘safe and neutral’ facilities in which such activities can take place.

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