From ‘successful’ to ‘useful’ – an exploration of failure

11 October 2017

Image: Lydia GuthrieLydia Guthrie

Over the last few months, I have been working with RiPfA on the theme of Family Group Conferences (FGCs) with Adults. In the course of this work, I read an article which caused me to reflect on notions of success and failure in this area.

Between January 2011 until September, in a district of the Netherlands, 41 FGCs were carried out with people who were engaged with a service which offered mental health care. Of these, 23 could be considered successful (Schout and De Jong, 2013). In a subsequent article (De Jong et al, 2015) the authors focused upon the other 18 conferences. In six cases, difficulties during the preparation stage meant that a conference was never held; in five cases, a conference was held but a plan could not be agreed by all the people involved, and in seven cases, a plan was agreed at a conference, but not fully implemented. In important ways, these FGCs had not achieved the intended or hoped-for outcomes of the people involved in them.

The researchers had conversations with the participants in order to find out more about these ‘failed’ conferences. In one FGC, there had been conflict between family members during the conference, and a plan could not be agreed upon. The adult at the centre of the conference had been told by some of her siblings that they could no longer be part of her support network, as in their view she was not taking the actions which they believed she needed to take in order to achieve her goals. Through a simplistic, linear lens, this conference had ‘failed’, as no plan was agreed. However, the adult at the centre of the conference explained to the researchers that she viewed the longer-term outcomes of the conference as having been positive. From her perspective, hearing from her siblings that she could no longer rely on them for support helped her to find the courage and determination to make important decisions for herself and to follow her own path. She told the researchers that she was now clearer about who she could and couldn't count upon as part of her support network, and she was glad that her siblings had expressed themselves more fully.

This begs the question of how success and failure is defined. Through the lens of performance measures, which so often focus on processes and outcomes, this FGC was a failure – no plan could be agreed. However, through the lens of the human experience of the person at the centre of the meeting, the outcome may have been different from that which she had hoped for, but it was certainly not a failure. The information which she gathered at the conference helped her to think differently about her situation and to gather her inner resources in order to make her own plan which she felt confident about. The FGC had a crucial outcome for her – she gained information about her support network, and this information represented ‘a difference which made the difference’ (Bateson, 1972, p 459).

If we limit ourselves to linear assumptions about success and failure, we may constrain our ability to work in a relationship-based way. Although practical measures are important, so too are the experiences of people, and it is important to acknowledge multiple perspectives about success and failure. Within an organisational framework that is built around relationship-based practice, measures such as whether a plan was produced would be just one indicator of success, rather than the sole indicator. People’s experiences and feedback would also form an important part of assessing whether something like an FGC had been useful.

Perhaps one reason we tend to stick to a linear view of success and failure is discomfort about professional uncertainty. If I define my role as supporting the people I work with to find solutions that work for them, how will I know if I’ve done a good job if I am not measuring success/failure in definitive ways? What if I support the people I work with to make decisions that I don't agree with? What if I support a person to make a decision, and then something goes wrong? What will this say about my abilities as a professional?

When I reflect on my professional life, events which I saw as failures at the time (not being able to support a person to achieve an outcome which we had both hoped for, or a person I was working with experiencing a negative event), in hindsight proved to be important learning experiences, once I had learned how to identify and accept the learning. Melanie Stefan, lecturer at Edinburgh University, wrote an article in Nature encouraging people to keep a log of their professional ‘failures’ in order to challenge linear narratives of what it is to be a successful professional. The most renowned example of this was a CV of Failures published by Johannes Haushofer, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs.

I am not proposing of course that we attempt to turn failure on its head and claim it a success. But nuanced perspectives of failure and success can co-exist, and this is an opportunity to explore what a non-linear approach might look like. Could we, for instance, begin to move away from simplistic notions of ‘success’ or ‘failure’? Could we look beyond the initial desired outcomes to identify others that may have resulted (perhaps unforeseen), and consider people’s experiences as one of a number of measures to determine whether support has been ‘useful’ in some way instead?

About the author

Lydia Guthrie (BA, MSc, DipSw) is a RiPfA Associate and qualified social worker who worked in the Probation Service for 11 years. Since 2009, she has been Co-Director of Change Point Ltd, an organisation which offers training and supervision, and is also training as a family therapist.

Related resources

Evaluating family group conferences with adults: Practice Tool

What is a family group conference for adults? Brief Guide

Family group conferencing with adults: Webinar


De Jong G and Schout G (2013) ‘Breaking through Marginalisation in Public Mental Health Care with Family Group Conferencing: Shame as Risk and Protective Factor’. British Journal of Social Work 43 (7) 1439-1454.

De Jong G, Schout G, Pennell J and Abma T (2015) ‘Family Group Conferencing in public mental health and social capital theory’. Journal of Social Work 15 (3) 277-296. Available online: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gideon_De_Jong/publication/275468324_Family_Group_Conferencing_in_public_mental_health_and_social_capital_theory/links/55d0669308ae118c85c01173.pdf

Bateson G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology p459. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

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