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Learning from failure with FailSpace

Date Created: 25th Apr 2022

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Artswork are very pleased to be working as champions for FailSpace, an AHRC-funded project looking at how the cultural sector can better recognise and learn from failure. In this blog our Data Research Manager, Mac Ince, explains more about the project and why it is important

I’ve often thought, if you think can’t improve on a project, you’re not paying enough attention. I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on this. I’d love to know what experiences people have had where they think they did something perfectly. This isn’t to denigrate, or to sneer. It’s part and parcel of a solid evaluation process. I know it’s hardly an original thought, but it gets me motivated to create evaluations that really want to talk about the details.

Artswork were very proud when we had our application to become a FailSpace champion accepted. FailSpace — also known as Cultural Participation: Stories of Success, Histories of Failure — is an AHRC-funded research project exploring how the cultural sector can better recognise, acknowledge and learn from failure, particularly when undertaking work intended to diversify and grow the people who are taking part in subsidised cultural activities. It basically boils down to getting the cultural sector to be more honest about failures. We want to bring curiosity to the forefront for everyone involved in our work, and for partners to be open to the learning that comes from making mistakes. Artswork have been involved since the start of the outreach for the project. Attending training back in December of 2020, to explore the beautifully designed and crafted tools and resources that have been created (some with a refreshing sense of humour).

what is FailSpace

At the start of April, when we saw snow surprise us by settling up and down the country, Mac (Data Research Manager) and Lesley (Training and Quality Assurance Officer) were in Doncaster. Joined by a handful of new champions from the breadth and width of the UK (both culturally and geographically) for an active day of exploring the FailSpace framework and tools. The day was filled with ideas about how to engage people in our networks to talk honestly about failure. We talked through the “Wheel of Failure” (who wants to work with us to get this commissioned as a Channel 4 Game Show!?). This is a really interesting tool that can be applied to all kinds of project management areas. It helps simplify the 5 facets of failure (Process/Purpose/Practice/Profile/Participation) and allows them to be rated on a scale from “Outright Failure” to “Outright Success”.

Lively discussions were also held around the different expectations that we all have. From funders to delivery organisations, and to the participants. What might be considered failure for one group, might be an outright success for another. It left us with a lot to think about. Not least how we can go forward with all we learnt to help improve the work of our partners (and ourselves!).

There’s a lot to unpick about failure. It shouldn’t be ignored. Those that do, run the risk of repeating mistakes again, and again. The emotional reaction we have to it personally is a challenge.  But the issue of public perception, the potential reputational damage admitting certain failures can see the end of trusted organisations. Some might seek to avoid risk, for fear of doing something badly. But what the creative world needs is to break the moulds, to take a chance on something new, something innovative, engage new audiences, discover new practices, work differently. If it isn’t an outright success, (and what ever really is) so what? If we’ve been honest with everyone, we’ve learned something. We all know the Samuel Beckett “Fail Better” quote from Westward Ho. I hope we can raise this mantra to the pinnacle of best practice in evaluation.

For more information on the FailSpace project and to take a look at their postcards, books, and other tools please visit



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