Making a safe place for failure

Brene Brown Quote

Enjoying Failure – Yeah right

So in this day and age, we hear that it’s okay to fail. Lean into it. All the high achievers are doing it. It seems it’s the thing to do. All you have to do is: Learn from it.

That’s great but I come from engineering and here is what failure looks like for me. It’s dangerous and scary. The stakes are high so make it even more important that there are systems in place when failure does happen.

Substation fire
Substation fire — failure is sometimes dangerous making it even more important to be learnt from


Some of the methods I have used to learn from failure are post-mortems from project management and the ICAM (incident cause analysis method) from safety. These are great methods very robust and systematic but sometimes feel very impersonal. This can be a great thing but it does make the take up of the outcomes harder. Also what if failure isn’t a fiery mess of electricity and metal but a failure of a product to succeed or a project to run on time. These aren’t any less of a failure but there could be a more human way to engage with the failure to learn from it. This brings me to Brené Brown, researcher and storyteller, writer of amazing books.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” — Brené Brown

I was recently watching an interview of Brené Brown by Chase Jarvis and Brené mentioned that at her company they have a system for processing failure, a ‘Story Rumble’ (in the video just after the hour mark). They have a high tolerance for failure but a low tolerance for failing more than once on the same thing. When they onboard new people, they teach them the system giving them the safety to fail.

‘Story Rumble’

So what is a story rumble? It seems very similar to a post-mortem from project management land but has some benefits. It has 4 parts, kicking off with gathering all the stakeholders together.

Part 1: Problem identification

The process starts problem identification using the philosophy of the following quote attributed to Einstein (even though there is no evidence it doesn’t mean it isn’t a good quote)

He was once asked: “If you have one hour to save the world, how would you spend that hour?” He replied, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”

Part 2: Story rumble

The ‘story rumble’ is where everyone writes down the story they are telling themselves about the cause of the problem and what’s around it. These are then posted on a wall and not told so there is no ‘Halo’ effect, the effect of the first person to tell their story affecting everyone else’s stories. Then dig into what stories are true and not true. Is there stuff underpinning the stories that aren’t true and is getting in the way of success?

Part 3: Key learnings

This stage digs into the outcomes of the story rumble to find the key learnings that need to be embedded into the culture so the same mistake isn’t repeated. This part needs to understand what is achievable to change in the culture and what is not.

Part 4: Embedding the learnings

In the interview, Brené didn’t mention this but without it, the whole thing is a waste of time and energy. Learnings that aren’t embedded into the culture aren’t going to reduce the likelihood of the same problem happening again. It is important to convert the learnings into actionable outcomes which will change the culture to enable and empower people to fail in a new way next time.


The biggest take away for me was the systematic way that failure was analysed and learnt from. Shine a spotlight on the problems, reality check them, learn from them and then change behaviour based on the learnings. This is a great way to make a safe place for failure. Maybe it isn’t a failure anymore it truly is the growth opportunity that is talked about.

What methods do you use to anaylse failures? Are you implementing the outcomes into cultural change? Let me know in the comments below.