Permission to Fail: Clusters and a Leap of Faith

How do we craft spaces where creativity can thrive? In my new Writing and the Creative Process class this semester we have been talking a lot about giving people “permission to fail.” That is, if we’re going to take the risk of trying something new, of being truly “creative,” we need to know that our evaluators, teachers, managers, and collaborators have meaningfully given us this permission.

This course has become an elegant microcosm for me of Plymouth State University’s massive shift to a clusters-based approach to teaching, learning, and service. In order for me to thrive in this environment, which values collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinary, I need to take a leap of faith. I need to believe that I actually do have permission to fail. And I genuinely need to offer that permission to my students. And this means I need to take a leap of faith and encourage such leaps in others.

After all, I have applied for and received funding. I need to offer “deliverables” at some point, justifying my university’s investments. Students are often taking on significant debt and investing valuable time to experience these courses. What if I fail?

What if students don’t participate? What if colleagues don’t follow through? What if failure is not an option? What if, what if, what if? my anxiety demands.

A colleague of mine shared this Slate.com article with me that describes how we—in a variety of sectors—claim to value creativity while actively stifling it. A sobering thought.

I don’t think I could undertake a Contemplative Communities Cluster Project or “open” my Creative Process class without my practice. Years of grooming in higher education have taught me that failure is not an option. My own ego compounded with the significant role that course evaluations play in promotion and tenure have made me reticent to try new things that might… well… fail.

But my practice reminds me to see situations with fresh eyes, with a beginner’s mind. My practice encourages me to trust what people say, to believe that transformational change is possible for myself, my students, and my university.

And so I leap. I trust that my project collaborators will be honest with me about their commitments and tasks. I trust that my evaluators know the valuable role failure plays in innovation. I trust that my students will ask, try, speak up, and, perhaps most importantly, trust me.

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3 comments on “Permission to Fail: Clusters and a Leap of Faith

  1. Al says:

    The dark side to the cluster approach is the cutting of teaching positions w/out trimming the admin jungle.

  2. JIm McGroddy says:

    I have spent the last twenty months at a rapidly growing startup company that had innovation as one of the key elements of the company culture. The experience has been amazing with incredible collaboration across business functions like I have never experienced at any other company… there were some key messages coming from the CEO, that I think enabled this culture:

    1. The CEO made it clear that communication lines from anyone to anyone else in the company were wide open…. the CEO sat at a round table, with no walls around it, amongst the cubicles.

    2, The CEO made it clear that in order to move fast and innovate, everyone was expected to debate until timely decision.

    3. The CEO taught everyone, personally, the charity principle (both by training and in day to day practice): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity

    4. Lastly, the CEO made it clear that people would not be punished for making mistakes – what was valued was bring the truth forward so that the right debate would be had, and the right decisions would be made.

    In this culture, we were all accountable to one another for the success of our mission. In reading your blog, I would say the following based on this recent experience:

    5. You have taken the leap of faith – in our company, the more I did this, the easier it became.

    6. Open communication to your students and colleagues when you are embarking into uncharted territory and your use of the charity principle when interpreting your student’s and colleagues ideas and feedback will build trust.

    7. As a leader, it is important to make it clear that you are not perfect, and to create a safe environment for participation, debate and feedback.

    The title of your article shows that you are on the right track – point #4 above, in our situation, took away some but not all of the fear of employees when they wanted to express an unpopular idea. Seeing our CEO use the charity principle in such a generous, calm and disarming way also really helped. As a professor and leader at the university – trusting others, and leaping yourself seems right on to me… Thank your for this great blog post!

  3. […] financial support from the University, we have launched a sturdy little Contemplative Communities cluster project up here at Plymouth State University, […]

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