Eat your failure cake! Learn from your mistakes.

27 Sep, 2011
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Running a great session at the ALE2011 conference last week gave me a great level of energy. Facilitating a story mapping session gave me a great boost of confidence. Running a similar session in a different context with a different group toke that confidence away. By eating my failure cake I was able to celebrate my failing and opened my eye to enable me to learn from the failure.

In wild anticipation..
ALE2011 conference has been teaching me life lessons beyond the dates it was scheduled. The physical end this great unconference hasn’t been the end to the excellent learning experience granted to me. I am glad to be able to share with the ALE network and the rest of the world 🙂
Last week Olav Maassen (Twitter: OlavMaassen)  and I (Twitter: eelco1969) went to the ALE2011 conference. We chose to drive at night from the Netherlands to Berlin. It was raining, it was tiring yet I felt this strange excitement of being privileged to be part of something special, even before it all started.
Joyful and thankful learning, honour..
The conference started with sessions in the morning. They were all great, but I was feeling tired from driving and sleeping only two hours. Still that feeling of excitement was keeping me going. The afternoon was reserved for Open Space. Mike Sutton (twitter @mhsutton) does an excellent job in energizing the room while opening the Open Space and he gets my energy pumping a little bit more. A few sessions are announced and then one grabbed my attention. One of the participants proclaims: “I would like to do a session on story mapping, so I can learn about how to use it effectively.”
I jumped up thinking: “That is the session to join and share my thoughts and learn some stuff.” During the session  energy flowed happily for an hour, we shared, learned and created new thoughts. I felt great, this was exactly the session I was looking for. None of us were ready to finish our conversation just  because the clock told us to. We decided to continue the conversation by doing a story map exercise the next day to get some real practice by tackling a real problem. And wow, they were looking at me for hosting that session. I felt honored and happy by their trust. (Thanks guys!) I was looking forward to hosting that session and making it great.
Success! Fame! Glory!
Next day, the session on building a story map on "improving ALE" took place. Twenty passionate people were creating a vision, a bunch of persona’s, a grid for the story map and epic stories to populate the story map. To prioritize the story map we applied the silent collaboration technique; every participant had to place a story on the story map without so much of a whisper. The group then silently made their disagreement explicit by replacing stories. After 5 minutes, we had a story map, concrete, prioritized and complete, to enable us to improve ALE by getting management onboard! Whhhhoooooottt. Energy, applause, glory, yippeekayeee!
I was on top of the world. I had successfully hosted and facilitated twenty people to create something this excellent. They had worked in subgroups and from the ground up came up with a coherent strategy from growing the ALE. This is agile to the max. Doing over talking, individuals over interaction, respect, insect and adapt, focus, value, flow. I felt sooooo agile..  Oh boy, was I setting myself up for a fall.
The Failure, the pain!
Three days later, still in the oozing emotion of the conference, I attended one of my own management team meetings. Thirteen people around a table, ready to meet all day. Sitting. Talking. Taking notes. The agenda was set and had some more and less strategic items. I was sitting in my chair, thinking back at the terrific ALE experience. All of a sudden, it struck me. Why not do the same session again with this team? My own management peers? Cool. Yet.. Scary. They would see me doing this. Oh, oh….
In the next break, I suggested the idea to some people and they all reacted positively. I started preparing the session and within ten minutes I have the same energy and buzz again just like a few days ago. I was creating persona’s, story map etc. Yeah, I was thinking: “That will show them.” We did the silent prioritization exercise.
And then it happened: they were all looking a bit awkward and something just does not feel right for me. I quickly change the session, trying to recover, because it does not feel like ALE at all. It was already too late. We change the session and I feel bad. Why did it fail? I just don’t get it and driving home I feel darkness on my shoulders. I failed. I failed miserably. And I failed myself and my peers publicly. The buzz and high I had from the ALE2011 conference was completely gone. Ouch.
The rejuvenating effect of celebration..
All of a sudden I remember that fantastic little session on “Celebrating your failure” at ALE. "Failure cake!", my brain shouts, “Failure cake! Failure cake!” That session was about embracing failures because they can teach us how to become better. You have found a way that doesn’t work. Great. Find out what’s different. I must celebrate my failure.
I start laughing and singing, really loud, while driving and feeling better than before. Then it hit me and I figured out what went wrong. I forgot to ask my colleagues what the goal of the session was. Something not completely unimportant..There you go, yippeekayee for the second time within a couple of days. I learned so much today. I laughed once more, and got home safely. Life is great again.
What I learned from this that goes well:

  • Workshop session formats are great energy ;
  • I rock at getting the mood going and creating awesome workshop environments ;
  • Format for story map works awesome for getting focus and practical things going.
    What I learned I can do better:
  • Never, and I say never, forget to ask why we are doing a session
  • Failure is great, it makes you humble, learn, and therefore grow. Ask Kathryn Schulz, being wrong: On being wrong | Kathryn Schulz
    More information on story mapping:
    Website from Jeff Patton:

Upcoming book by Jeff Patton: User-Story-Mapping-Jeff-Patton


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