On failure – a conversation between the arts and business

Barbara Vollath and Karen Glossop met in London in 2013, when Barbara came to the UK for a one-year secondment.

Barbara now lives in Munich, although she has travelled across many other countries, fuelled by her love of different languages and cultures. Barbara has worked for a leading German reinsurance company for 15 years. She heads a team of nine people, mainly dealing with Asian and African markets.

Karen has lived in London since she was nine years old, although she was born in Toronto, Canada. She read Classics at Cambridge University and afterwards trained as an actor. She now combines a career making theatre as part of the award-winning creative partnership Wishbone, and working as a consultant in communication and leadership at UK business schools and with private clients.

Karen and Barbara were mutually intrigued by the differences and similarities between their values, lifestyles and work. They began a series of conversations discussing ideas, arts and current affairs.

This dialogue is based on transcripts of conversations in English recorded at the café at Tate Modern and over Skype between London and Munich.

This conversation was conducted over Skype.

Karen         Sorry can we retrack… er… sorry… I want to ask you…er … you’ve talked about failure cultures, Barbara…

Barbara      Yeah.

Karen         I want to know what a failure culture is.

Barbara      I think a failure culture is an environment where you, um, acknowledge that there can be failures, and you still give trust in that person, or even more, you feel that person after that failure has taken some experience, or has learned something, and is now even more experienced than before that experience.


Karen         Perfect! And, um, you mentioned something earlier when we thought we were recording but we weren’t… MORE LAUGHTER… about a meeting where people had to share their failures, and I’m wondering if you could just… repeat that… but also what you think that says about your organisation.

Barbara      Yeah. PAUSE I’m a little bit stuck now. Let’s try from the beginning. Um, a failure culture… I think it’s not easy to have such a failure culture in big corporates because you’re much more visible. And everybody can trace what you’re doing, everyday, and you’re much more under observation. And even though we all know rationally that failure culture is something very important, because without failure you cannot create innovation, we still feel… Like last week, we had that example where we were sitting as group of people and we were all confirming each other how much we would appreciate to have a failure culture and it was so important, and one of us came up, and said: ”So, why don’t we talk about… everybody should bring up one of his failures.” And all of a sudden, there was silence in the room. Nobody could talk about it. And to me, I think there were two aspects to it. The first one, was that… um… already as children we have grown up with the idea that we should avoid failures, that failure is something negative that you don’t want to do, that you don’t want to have. On the other hand, I was also thinking about failures in my life, my personal and professional life, and then sometimes it felt like is it really worth telling it? Because, after a while, it gets levelled out. It’s not anymore that important as it seemed back at that time. So I think there were two interesting aspects to it. But yes, I think it’s difficult for us to talk about our failures.

Karen         Do you think… I mean, it’s one of the things that strikes me, how important failure might be for learning.

Barbara      I think that it’s extremely important for learning. And that’s why some cultures that appreciate, or reward failures, I think the Americans and the Israeli environment, for example, if you have done something, and you fail, you get another chance. Like the PayPal founder, I think he had set up three start-ups before he er succeeded in his PayPal. And in Israel also people often tell about what they’ve already tried and didn’t work out but now that new shop or service or… whatever… start-up… Whereas in Germany, we do not, we cannot really appreciate failure. We’re much more looking towards success stories.

Karen         Mmm.

Barbara      And if someone tells you about a failure, that somehow puts him or her in a negative light. So it’s much more mistrust than confidence that he has learned something.

Karen         Wow. So at that meeting, when it all got silent, did anybody at all manage to get any kind of… make any kind of contribution? About failure?

Barbara      Very interesting. Yes, we had one colleague coming up with a story. But in her introduction, she said hat she could tell about a failure, but actually it was not hers, but colleague’s. But she could still report it! LAUGHS Now that’s really… interesting.

Karen        So, that is interesting. So our failures are children we’re neglecting. The children we don’t want to have. LAUGHS. Um. But we’ll talk about someone else’s failure. What… I mean… how was that received by everybody else in the room?

Barbara      In a way we were lucky because we had coffee break and then that was finished after five minutes. So, anyhow, we had to go back. Um. But to me, I was thinking a lot about it. And I could imagine others also were thinking about what had happened. But we didn’t come back to it. Didn’t get back to it later on.

Karen         That’s interesting. So nobody wanted to pick it up?

Barbara      No, not really. It was maybe not the time, but then you can say it’s never the time, or it’s always the time. But I just… when we talk about failure, I was thinking I mean failure sounds like a fixed term…

Karen         Yeah…

Barbara      … And you raised that before, what is it, failure? It’d maybe not black or white. You can have personal failures, commercial failures, and then…

Karen         You can have artistic failures too. LAUGHS

Barbara      Yeah.

Karen         And all three combined sometimes!

Barbara      You think it’s a failure but the other person would think it’s a success, or it’s still something that’s valuable. SO there is room for interpretation, probably, especially in your environment.

Karen        Well, in your world, if something’s a commercial failure, that’s the only measure, is that right?

Barbara     Er, I would think so, yes. Yes, and then you brought up the topic, like um… what’s the timeframe? If something is a really big success story, but after two or three years, it turns sour, would that be a success? Success in the beginning, and failure in the end? Or just a failure all…

Karen        Well I was particularly thinking about whoever had the brilliant idea of packaging up sub-prime um mortgages… I’d have to check the terminology before this went into print… but packaging them up and hiding them in packages where the debt was good, and you weren’t expecting default. I was wondering if that, obviously it was a very popular idea, and those things kept being sold and resold, and obviously initially that must have been seen as a success, but long-term it caused a recession. And I’m wondering whether that happening within the corporate world made people reflect on how they measured success in innovation. Or whether that’s something that doesn’t seem relevant, or just kind doesn’t seem to be anything that anybody thought applied to them.

Barbara     Yeah… well, I think you could measure it as a success story as such, or as one of your financial targets. For the financial targets, you have a certain deadline, if… usually you have midterm goals, reaching two to three years maximum, and if something turns sour after that, then you wouldn’t feel the consequences. Because you’ve already got your bonus. On the more personal level, or general level, um, was it a success, like getting back to the sub-prime? I think we all have a very bad memory, and if you have something that is a really good success for two years, you would get rewarded for it after that, causality is difficult to track. It might depend on the environment. It might depend on some other external factors, and you can’t really trace it back to that person, or that group that invented it. I think we have a very bad memory in that respect.

Karen        Wow. That’s interesting because we’re now bring perhaps an idea of morality into it…

Barbara      Yeah.

Karen         …Because if something is a commercial success in the short-term, and then in the long-term is a commercial disaster, with real life consequences, that might be considered immoral, um, what’s that mean for how corporates handle failure and success? Or how they view them, and what … and how they encourage people to evaluate their own contribution to innovation?

Barbara      Yeah, well maybe I got you wrong because like from an exposed perspective, we would definitely say that sub-prime has been a big failure.

Karen         Yeah. Ok. Yeah. But you said there wouldn’t be any personal consequences for whoever came up with those ideas for the packages.

Barbara      Yeah. Because I think you can’t trace it back. Who would you trace it back to? That’s really been an industry development. It’s not one person, with a success story, like a start-up founder.

Karen         So as soon as it gets really big, responsibility for success or failure becomes very diffuse?

Barbara      I think it needs to go to the next level. And um, the regulatory environment has to take consequences which happened also. I think as a company, you’re… you do not have a lot of remedies to do something against it. Apart from obviously not selling or… or… buying… any more of that product. But you’re not… that has really been an industry-wide phenomenon. So as part of the industry, you can just stop it but you can’t sanctions or consequences. I think that needs to be done from the level one higher…

Karen         That’s interesting, because if Paul and I have a failure, apart from maybe some people not enjoying one evening, there aren’t really many serious consequences. Of our failure. LAUGHS. Apart from for us.

Barbara     Ye-es. But that’s why I think corporates have regulators, which you don’t have.

Karen         No.

Barbara      We have regulators that generally speaking shout that we don’t do too big failures.

Karen         Yeah.

Barbara      So the really big ones should be avoided by them. We are quite toughly… um, strictly regulated.

Karen         It’s interesting, there was a phrase in this country, when in 2008, some very large banks started to look like they were going to go bust, that they were “too big to fail”.

Barbara      Umm. I think there is a discussion ongoing whether somebody can be too big to fail. And you’re right, that’s big financial institutions especially, but I mean but then we also on a national level, is Greece too big to fail?

Karen         Yeah. Um, perhaps we’re getting a little too far away from the idea of creativity, but I suppose at the time that these… innovations… were developed, they were seen as very creative. And that’s what led to some of the big failures, ultimately I suppose if the regulators were dazzled by the innovative nature, they didn’t recognise that they might have serious negative consequences. I don’t know. What are your…?

Barbara      I think I didn’t get the last part.

Karen         Well, um, you raised the very important point that there are regulators to stop people being so creative LAUGHS that their failures, um, that there are failures down the line, that they haven’t account… that they haven’t taken responsibility for. Does that… no, that doesn’t really make sense… Um, I think what I’m trying to say is that you’ve got regulators to stop innovations causing harm. And therefore being long-term failures even if they’re not in the short-term. But I’m just wondering whether sometimes people in the corporate world seem so dazzled when people do come up with innovations that they don’t think further ahead, or that regulators don’t think further ahead, and see that there might be consequences that are damaging. Or has that not been your experience?

Barbara      Well the tools… Well, sometimes I think there are grey areas, and being innovative can also mean taking advantage of grey areas obviously.

Karen         Yeah.


So it’s interesting we seem to have moved into an area of moral responsibility which I wasn’t quite expecting. Talking about failure, cost and benefit.

Barbara      Yeah.

Karen         So there might be costs and benefits to success as well.

Barbara      Yes, absolutely. I was just wondering whether we could touch on briefly on the issue of trust. Because talking to you about failure and the costs and benefits of failure, it seems to me that trust is an important basic, so to say. To accept failure or not to accept, or also in the next step to innovative or not, because only if you accept failure and you still trust your people…

Karen         Mmmm.

Barbara      … will they be in a position to maybe do the next failure, or the next success story. You never know, and I think you always need to be… you need to stay open to both.

Karen         Yeah, yeah.

Barbara      If you really want to be innovative.

Karen         Yeah, I like that thought that you need to stay open to both. I think, um… Success can be quite frightening too. What you do after you have that. Or what your expectations are. From success.

Barbara      Well, that’s an interesting one. On whether not only failure prevents you from trying another time, but also big success. Because then you have lose something.

Karen         Yeah, well…

Barbara      Because next time you could spoil your success.

Karen         Yeah, I think there is, in the UK, where we’re very obsessed with our pop music, there’s this concept of “the difficult second album”. I don’t know if you have a similar thing in Germany, where you have some band who come out with some music, and their debut record is amazing, because they’ve spent all this time kind of honing their creativity in private and then they release this thing to the world and everyone loves it. (I know the music industry has changed a lot, so maybe this a bit of an old-fashioned thing). And then everyone eagerly anticipates the second album, and it’s maybe… maybe it’s not as good as the first album, maybe it’s just different, and then how the public greet that. And we had that experience actually, because we had a huge success with our first show as Wishbone. We won an award, um, people really loved it. And our second show, we put it out too early, so in a way possibly we failed because we showed it too soon. We should have carried on working on it in private a bit longer and then waited to show it when we were ready. So that’s very different from your mantra in corporate creativity: “Fail early and often.”

Barbara      Yeah, that’s true. And I think that’s because we develop a service or a product and we need to involve our clients in the development.

Karen         Mmmm.

Barbara      Whereas maybe, and we had… we touched upon this last time, maybe in the artistic life, you wouldn’t want to kind of involve your customer in the journey of finding your perfect product. You want to set a perfect product and show when it’s perfect for you and show it to the public. Whereas we involve the customer in developing the product. And that’s why, for us, failing early means we can come up with a new idea that’s maybe a better fit to the customer. Whereas if you fail, it’s basically a product that’s already been at a stage where you feel it’s ready.

Karen         Mmm. Yeah. I mean I think there are – as we talked about at Tate Modern – there are models for, um, artistic process where you do involve your audience early on. But that’s an artistic choice, that’s not er something that you’re obliged to do. I mean there aren’t demands, there aren’t huge demands, that you have to do that. Whereas it’s interesting you… it sounds that innovating in business you really do have to do that.

Barbara      I think there’s no way, or it’s very risky at least, not to do it.

Karen         Yeah.

Barbara      Because then you end up spending or investing a year’s time and you might end up with a product that nobody needs, or with a product that they think that the original idea was really great, but you should have gone another direction at that point in time, or another point in time.

Karen         Hmmm.

Barbara      Um. Yeah, and that’s a little bit of the frustration that you had with your second show. If you go to the audience by developing yourself and then presenting a ready-made product…

Karen         Well that’s what they thought they were getting. And it was too soon.

Barbara      Yeah, and…

Karen         Yeah. I think… interesting… one of the things that um as soon as you show an audience an artistic piece, whatever stage it is of development, it’s quite hard for them not to respond to it as if it’s finished. However many times you tell them: “This is a work-in-progress.” Whereas I don’t know if that’s how your customers respond when you something early?

Barbara      I think the most important thing in showing something early, is that it shouldn’t have the look of as if they was a lot of time or money invested in it.

Karen         Oh, right.

Barbara      So a really very early prototype. But still something visible that you can touch or get a feeling or emotion to, not only… I found out if we talk to our customers about abstract ideas like ok, so we could do a contract reflects your liquidity, whatever. Something very abstract. They might say: “Oh, yes, sounds like a good idea.” But it’s too abstract for them.

Karen         Yeah.

Barbara      If we ring them… if we visualise that, it gets already much more emotional and intuitive and you can say. “Oh, well look, okay but if that means that you come and put up a calendar, that would mean that we come in January, March, and whatever.” And they say: “ Ok, now that I see the picture, you are there every quarter, it’s maybe a little too often.”

Karen         Huhhh.

Barbara      Or maybe even easier with a product. If you design a wallet, and um you present a red wallet, and they say: “You know I really don’t like bright colours.” Then you know exactly what to do. So I think the tricky thing is to be in between a very abstract idea, and a superbly fitted final product.

Karen         So it’s interesting you’re not only managing your own process of creat… innovating, but you’re also managing your customer’s experiences as you show them where you’re at.

Barbara      Exactly. That’s the second aspect. In your journey together, you could say.