So, we’re at the end of January. How many of you made a new year's resolution? And how many of you kept them? Or, more aptly, how many of you failed at them? I had a new year's resolution - one I was thinking about in December. Have I followed it? No. Have I failed? Maybe, but is that OK? Absolutely!

At this time of year we see a lot on the news about resolutions. Friday, January 22nd was known as Fail Friday and is, according to research, the date at which we most crack. Forbes suggests only 8 per cent of people achieve their new year's resolutions. I know I’m not in that 8 per cent this year.

Virgin Unite, Church of Fail, Matt Matheson

Why do we get it wrong?

So why do we fail to achieve these goals? There’s a heap of reasons. The goals that seem attractive when we set them perhaps just don’t seem so attractive when it comes to the point of cracking. We really do want that slice of cake instead of a piece of cucumber. 

Often we simply set goals that are unrealistic. We set ourselves such high standards to meet that it’s no wonder we struggle to attain to them for any period of time.

Commonly, goals are set that emphasise an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach. And in doing so, we don’t allow ourselves any flexibility. So we fail - or we ‘get it wrong’ and as a result of the high standards set, we give up.

And it doesn’t feel nice. We feel sad. We see ourselves as a failure with poor willpower. And we move on, but we don’t like getting it wrong.

Virgin Unite, Church of Fail, Virgin Group

What does wrong mean anyway?

In the world of improvisation, where performance and art is created in the moment, there is no such thing as getting it wrong or failing. There are just experiences that we learn from and adapt to. I distinctly remember being told this in my first improv class. When I was seemingly failing at an exercise, I was rewarded with a round of applause and a chance to try again.

Conditioning for right and wrong

We live in a world where from the moment a child is born (literally), he or she is surrounded by voices suggesting various actions are either right or wrong. We should/shouldn’t cut the umbilical cord. We should/shouldn’t let the baby put something in their mouth. We should/shouldn’t rush to pick up the baby if it stumbles.

This stifles learning - the baby won’t learn that this object is not for the mouth and it won’t develop its balance as quickly if we constantly race to catch the child and prop them up.

This continues throughout school: we shouldn’t talk in class; and if we don’t pass our exams to a high degree we won’t get a good job. We will fail.

And so it goes on throughout our life and into the workplace. It’s all about the bottom line; three strikes and you're out; if you don’t follow the process you will be disciplined; you can’t speak up to your manager.

This constant conditioning of right and wrong throughout our lives leads us to fear failure, let alone embrace it. As a result, our voice is muffled, we do not speak up and we limit ourselves to being a shadow of who we could be.

Virgin Unite, Church of Fail, Pamela Jouvian

What is the Church of Fail?

This is why I created the Church of Fail, to combat the toxic belief that we should all fall in line and get everything right all the time.

It’s a concept I created five years ago at a weekend away with colleagues in Wales when I was tasked with the challenge “How can I make my colleagues’ and clients’ lives easier?”

The Church of Fail is a combination of three distinct practices: stagecraft  - having a stage to stand on and an audience to play to; improvisation - celebration of failure; and sound business logic - recognition of what we learn from the experience.

Attendees step forward in front of an audience and answer three questions:

1. What did I fail at?
2. How did I cope with it?
3. What would I do differently next time?

They then receive a rapturous round of applause and are not allowed to step down until the applause has ended.

The peculiar feeling that comes from accepting a round of applause and having to wait, and accept it, coupled with vulnerability of sharing, leaves a greater mark than if you sat quietly in a room noting you’d made a mistake.

The Church of Fail is a simple yet powerful activity that elicits a wide scope of responses from people. I’ve seen someone share a confession that they broke the photocopier. But I’ve also seen a director of a major digital firm come to a dramatic realisation that he’d spent too long on his business and neglected his family.

The Church of Fail doesn't have to be this intense for everyone who takes part, but for some, it creates an environment in which they can deal with some major realisations. Everyone shares whatever they wish and whatever comes up in the moment is the right thing.

The Church of Fail is something that can be run with two people or at scale, with events taking place in offices, conferences and, of course, churches. Virgin ran theirs in the loft of their building to great effect.

Virgin Unite, 100% human, Church of Fail, Matt Matheson

At Virgin’s gathering, we heard stories ranging from people who couldn’t keep to dry January through to one individual who reported a massively inflated statistic to management in a director's presentation - and tried to style it out.

Perhaps most poignantly, we had a story from someone who in a moment of forgetfulness, left her entire Christmas shopping on a train - ouch.

Whilst the Church of Fail is a fun, safe way to share with those around us, its foundations are built on a powerful philosophy of rejecting failure as something we should fear and avoid.

This isn’t new thinking - it’s just thinking that hasn’t permeated all areas of work or taken on the language it needs.

The software development industry has been all over this for a long time - with agile practices, the concept of ‘fail fast and fail often’ and ‘test-driven development’. In applying this thinking to the software development process, they are delivering faster, meeting clients’ needs quicker and innovating quicker with less risk and better value for their budgets.

How much more could we achieve if we apply these principles to our own behaviours? Will we deliver faster, meet our own needs quicker and innovate more readily in our personal and professional lives? I think so.

Don’t be afraid of failure and what we can learn from it - welcome it with open arms and learn from it. It’s what business needs, it’s what we as individuals need to release our potential and it’s what the world needs. Through learning we grow. Let’s not stop growth. Let’s encourage it.

But you don’t have to wait for the next Church of Fail to do this. Next time something goes wrong, don’t panic, don’t hide it and don’t worry about it.

Just pause, reflect and ask yourself three questions: what you have you failed at, how did you cope with it and what would you do differently next time?

And when you’re done, reward yourself in your own special way as you see fit. You’ve just learned, grown and helped challenge those who believe we should fear failure.

– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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