Why do we still hide failure?

When I told some ten ‘Health Product People’ in ‘Conference Room One’ that they had to be able to make mistakes — they paid attention.

This elite group of government and NHS digital product developers and leaders had met to share a presentation on methods to evaluate the progress and direction of their digital projects, and to learn from the experience of the leader.

The leader had made the point that if it became necessary, one must, and he had ‘pulled the plug’ on an expensive digital development project because it was clear that the direction was not leading to achievement. This was clearly a difficult thing to do, with the ‘press’ so keen to ‘be at their heels’, but he and ‘they’ had pulled the project.

Hiding failure is still major in our culture, in the NHS, in academia and the corporate world and social sector. So what those specialists were advocating was not only hugely important but still often incredibly difficult for hidden cultural reasons, like scapegoating, losing face or your job … They needed to be reassured of doing the right thing, and aware of why such decisions may seem to be SO difficult.

I have been demoted for whistleblowing in my career and seen many examples of inconvenient issues being covered up, but I could have told of when, in 1970, the senior medical officer of a blue chip company had given an injection incorrectly — and I had needed to tell him.

The effect of the too-quick-effects of that injection would probably have given the patient a fever for a few hours, but not done any major harm, other patients should be spared that experience! In the 1950’s I had seen similar doses of the same vaccine used to induce fever in patients with skin conditions.

I was shocked when he reacted by urgently telling me not to tell anyone about what had happened. That anyone, especially a senior doctor, should be so afraid as a result of someone knowing that he had made a mistake is wrong.

Fortunately, especially among major corporate digital developers, having to halt a development is recognised as being better, cheaper than trying to keep it going when it should be stopped. The press, unfortunately, still enjoy publicising expensive failures, and the public sector is especially exposed to ‘the press’.

The culture is being changed, it has to be.

There are major efforts to make it safe for staff to acknowledge mistakes in health care, without that, improvements are delayed. Scapegoats are still far too common as was the case with Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba who recently won her appeal against being struck off. No one should have to suffer so unjustly.

We who have to make decisions in our work will make mistakes. I hope that we will have leaders who will be constructive when we acknowledge that. In any event, there may be HR people or other professionals and in Lucidity Network we have a group of supportive and experienced professionals to consult.

If we lead our organisations, can we offer suitable supportive environment for our people to ‘fail quickly’ and ‘safely’ and move on? What is the policy and is it robust enough? Successful organisations have such policies and practice them.

If you would like to be part of a network of dynamic professionals, making mistakes and making improvements check out the Lucidity Network. It’s a pick and mix of online and offline practical tools and advice as well as access to a dynamic network of expertise to help you take the lead in getting the results you want. We are open to members several times a year. Sign up here to join the waiting list. 

Genevieve Hibbs

Genevieve M Hibbs former: nurse (general and occupational health), midwife, Christian missionary, lecturer, elected councillor, mayor and a member of the Lucidity Network.