How To

May 10, 2024

How to get your team to share their failures

Sarah Drinkwater of Common Magic offers her top tips for your team to discuss — and celebrate — their setbacks

Businessman stopping the domino effect on gray background.

Sarah Drinkwater was the head of Google Campus London, one of the original hangout spots for founders in the early days of London tech. She’s kept her love for community throughout her career and now runs Common Magic, a fund investing in products with community at their core.

She has run failure events — which she refers to as failcons — at companies like Google, investment firm Omidyar Network, and startup funerals at Google Campus. “In London, and Europe as a whole, there’s still a stigma attached to ideas not working out. We don’t need to glorify misery but it is powerful to listen to peers sharing vulnerably,” she says. “You can find humour in it when it’s a communal experience. You can reflect and learn from it and then let it go, instead of sitting with shame. It’s cathartic.”

Here she shares her top tips for getting your team to share their failures.

Make it a peer run event

Senior management can't enforce this. You can suggest the idea, but a bit like employee resource groups, the organisation, planning and selection of speakers has to come from the team. If it doesn’t, people will have their guards up and it’ll feel like a forced corporate activity. It should be fun.


Set the tone

These events need to be fun and supportive. Be clear this isn’t a space for humble bragging. We don’t need happy endings or for it to be spun into a success. You want honesty while finding the fun and laughter in the failure, if possible.

Don’t let people freestyle

Before each event, preselect several speakers. Get them to come prepared with a five-minute presentation. It should include:

  • An explanation of what they were trying to do;
  • What went wrong;
  • How they got there;
  • The impact it had;
  • The lessons they learned from it.

Fuckup nights have a slightly different format: speakers have seven minutes, 10 slides and about 45 seconds to speak on each slide.

Don’t let the most junior person go first

To encourage a culture of sharing mistakes — especially when it’s mistakes that employees have made, not founders — senior stakeholders need to set the tone by going first. Ensure they don’t sugarcoat their story. You want to hear the impact of their mistake: Did it lose the company money? Did it annoy a client? Did it lead to lost investment? Getting them to start shows that everyone can fail.

Celebrate attempts

If you’re trying to create a culture of experimentation and innovation, failure sharing is the perfect place to prove you mean this. Celebrate the failed experiments — cheer them on, be supportive that they’ll figure it out next time, pay attention to the lessons they’ve learned and praise them for the insight. You could even create an anonymous Wiki of all the failed attempts at your company — this could be shared internally or externally.

Start small

If you’re not sure how the format will be received, start the event within a particular department. Explain the concept and why you’re doing it. If successful, grow it out to the wider company. At each event, make sure there are stories from a mix of departments.

Set a regular cadence

You don’t want this to be a one-off session. Put a recurring date in the diary. Once a quarter, for example.

On the subject of… celebrating failure

1. Why failure should not be celebrated in the startup world. One from the archives. 

2. What I learnt from my failed startup.

3. Finland has a day to celebrate startup failures.

Anisah Osman Britton

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn