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Class is in session: How one Grand Rapids group is redefining failure in the workplace

Jonathan Williams

Welcome to Failure Laboratory, a place where professionals come together to challenge their perceptions of themselves and each other. Here, they begin to understand the science behind our innate fear of failing and work towards changing it. 
Four years ago a small audience gathered at Wealthy Street Theatre in Grand Rapids to talk about a rather unconventional topic: failure. They listened to leaders and well-known artists in their community openly own their past struggles and change the conversation that surrounds failure. The event was an immediate success, and Failure:Lab was born. Since then, this form of social expression and storytelling has gone viral on a global scale. In just the last few months Failure:Lab events have taken place in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, SXSW in Austin, and India.

A year into the success of Failure:Lab, Grand Rapids residents and founders Jordan O’Neil, Austin Dean, and Jonathan Williams saw how these stories were stirring people up. From the lead singer of The Verve Pipe, Grand Rapids resident Brian Vander Ark, to the executive director of the UICA, Miranda Krajniak, people have gathered to publicly put that which is often shoved into the furthest quadrants of memory center stage: the disappointments and mistakes that inevitably accompany lives also filled with success.

What have all of these talks of failure done? It’s making us realize that being vulnerable is, well, a part of life — and something that happens to everyone, regardless of how successful you are. It’s a recognition that all of this living — all of this growing up and working and finding out what you love — is hard. And it’s certainly not a neatly packaged story, not if we’re going to be honest. But, despite all of the struggles — the being made fun of in school and the disappointed parents and dwindling bank accounts — these stories connect with people, with those who have faced the pain and the hardness. And, as Failure:Lab so poignantly helps us realize: it’s all part of life; facing the good and the bad and having the strength to deal with both.

After all of this success in failure, Failure:Lab’s founders wanted the positive effects of one brief evening together to last longer. “We wanted to provide people with the tools and processes to make real change,” says Williams. Realizing he had real event-based research at his fingertips, Williams began distilling the information into concrete topics and lessons. He eventually took his research and ideas to Brightly, a digital design agency and expert on user experience and learning management. Larry Faragalli, Brightly’s CEO and Creative Director, saw potential in the project, and his team went to work. What Brightly developed is now called Failure:Laboratory, a curriculum designed to reframe the idea of failure in the workplace through storytelling and open dialogue.

“The heart of Failure:Laboratory is about creating a culture of learning, self-improvement and increased risk intelligence,” says Williams. Designed with corporate and university settings in mind, Failure Laboratory is comprised of six unique learning modules (read: classes), such as The Anatomy of Failure, The Blame Game and Crushing Stigma. Each module takes roughly three hours to complete and is customizable. They can take place during a two-day workshop or be spaced out on a bi-monthly or monthly basis.

Failure:Laboratory assists groups of 20 to 60 people answer tough, but necessary, questions, such as: What’s holding you back? What’s stifling growth? What are you afraid of?

Williams explains the demand for a challenging curricular framework such as this is due to the changing landscape of the traditional workspace. “Companies are faced with increased global competition and exponential change,” he says. “Everyone is remote or placed into departmental silos with minimal interaction. We want to draw them out, mix it up and challenge participants to uncover opportunity in failure they don’t realize is there.”  

Baring your professional soul among coworkers and executives can be incredibly daunting, as society tends to frown upon inner failure, characterizing the person as weak or vulnerable. This is a barrier participants of Failure:Laboratory need to overcome, but how do they combat these feelings of insecurity? Enter Denise VanEck of Thought Design. Drawing on the latest research, Thought Design helps adults improve their lives, create new and better habits, connect with community, and develop lifelong learning patterns. Based in Rockford, Mich., they offer an array of services ranging from team building activities to culinary events and workshops. The founders of Failure:Lab brought their idea and draft curriculum to VanEck seeking her advice. She saw serious potential in the project and wanted in.

“Denise took Failure:Laboratory from a good product to something great,” says Williams. “She helped us feel comfortable and prepared on an international scale.” VanEck restructured the program, incorporating brain and social science into the modules that help participants understand scientifically why a fear of failure can be a significant roadblock to professional growth. Now the main facilitator of the program, VanEck is skilled at setting people at ease from day one. She begins by showing short videos from past Failure:Lab events to break the ice and focus on the failure of someone else. “Denise has designed the whole experience to heighten engagement and build people up, not break them down,” Williams adds.


“Group events like Failure:Laboratory create a common language and frame of reference among coworkers and professionals,” says Kathy Crosby, President and CEO of Goodwill Industries in Grand Rapids. Goodwill’s executive leadership participated in one of the first sessions of Failure:Laboratory over a period of six months, and the results were promising. Crosby shared her own personal story of struggling with weight gain on the stage of Failure:Lab in the past and has always been intrigued by the intent of the organization. “As professionals we are asked to be innovative, forward thinkers, but fear can be a huge barrier. I viewed this program as an opportunity to discuss failure with my executive team and how the presence of it gets in the way of success," she says.

What stood out to Crosby was how customizable the modules were. “After each session we would receive written feedback from participants, and Denise [VanEck] would tweak the subsequent sessions, helping people feel more comfortable and engaged along the way," she says. Some people felt really empowered afterwards and have even started a professional learning community focused on failure within the corporation.

Talking about weaknesses, vulnerabilities and fear can be a tough road to ask people to go down. Crosby agrees that she was met with a myriad of emotions, ranging from excitement to trepidation, but VanEck’s ability to create a culture of support and acceptance was admirable. She concluded stating that she would go through the process again and even have the same group of professionals participate. “It was valuable for the participants to have a safe space to share their concerns, and it was a chance for supervisors to listen and actually verbalize their own vulnerabilities and concerns as well," she says.

When asked if there were any lasting effects as a result of the program, she replied, “The word failure itself isn’t as frightening. We pitch ideas to the board and can comfortably and confidently describe next steps if it happens to fail. We aren’t afraid to use that word anymore.” In addition to Goodwill Industries, 58 student leaders from the Grand Valley State University Hauenstein Center have taken part in the program, as well as the Grand Rapids Community College administrative team.

Failure:Laboratory is entering the national scene next month. On May 2nd and 3rd they are partnering with Dell Computer Company to facilitate the program with a group of high-potential employees. The workshop will be prefaced with their own Failure:Lab event and then blended into the curriculum featuring the actual storytellers. “For us this really validates all the work we’ve put into this idea,” says Williams. “And it’s just the beginning.”

As Williams put it, it is only the beginning for Failure:Laboratory — and the future's looking bright. “Looking forward, we would love to digitize the experience,” Williams says. “We want to make the lessons available to a larger audience virtually.” They also plan to employ a model in which national workshop facilitators are able to license the curriculum and be trained in the program, making it available to multiple groups at the same time nationally. 

What's important to note is how their future prospects still reflect the original intent: to make the positive changes generated by Failure:Lab continuous, tangible and transferable to a wider audience. Williams quoted Jerry Zandstra of Inno-Versity saying, “You can't fix what you can't see." That quote seems to encapsulate the purpose behind this program: to help an organization push past stigma, doubt and fear to see what's really happening and work towards mutual understanding and support. In other words: to not be afraid to fail.

To check out Failure Laboratory and listen online to past stage performances from Failure:Lab, click here. Their next event in Grand Rapids is scheduled for Thursday, May 12 at Celebration Cinema North. Tickets can be purchased on their website.

Chelsea Slocum is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. You can reach her by emailing chelseaslocum@gmail.com.

Photography by Adam Bird
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