Behind the Scenes

Failure by Design

Why stories about business mistakes trump those about triumphs at conferences.

I’m writing this just a few days after PCMA Convening Leaders 2013 wrapped up in Orlando, and the compliments are starting to come in. As you’ve heard from PCMA Senior Vice President of Education and Meetings Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, in her Planner’s Notebook columns leading up to our annual meeting, she makes Convening Leaders a beta event. Putting it out there that we are taking risks with some aspects of our program design – and conveying that we’re not sure how they will fly – is different from boldly announcing to attendees that they will experience surefire solutions to challenges they may face at their own events. Attendees tend to be more generous in their evaluations.

Risk-taking goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurialism. And so does failure. But we typically wall off stories of failure. They’ve been seen as humiliating and shameful, even when the risk-takers clearly had the best of intentions and spared no blood, sweat, and tears in their efforts. Lately, however, we’ve started noticing a few conferences – FailCon, Bmore Fail, and others – devoted to giving startup founders the floor to share how they have floundered. Their stories serve as lesson plans, not contrite confessionals. We wondered: Were there other conferences like this in other fields? And more important, how might attendees benefit from incorporating failure into our conference programs?

When we explained the story concept to our design team at Point Five in order for them to create a cover illustration, they brainstormed about a simple way to make failure seem comfortable – maybe even homey.

They came up with the idea of a crossstitched sampler, and said they were working with a needlepoint shop to find someone to stitch their design. I hadn’t done any needlepoint in nearly 20 years, but I volunteered, thinking it would be a relaxing weekend project.

Stitching away at the design you see on our cover gave me a chance to reflect on my own failure story, because it’s why I had started doing needlepoint in the first place. My husband and I had started a business when our two daughters were young, and we struggled to keep it – and our household – afloat. It was a major flop, but we had to keep it going until we could find a buyer.

During those five long years, we learned to make do without a lot of things, including health insurance. I took to making needlepoint gifts for family for special occasions after the girls had gone to bed at night. It was affordable, and making something handmade, I figured, showed that I cared, even more than an expensive gift might. Looking back now, doing needlepoint probably had therapeutic value. At some level, it helped me feel more in control – at least something at my hands would turn out according to plan.

While we wisely try to avoid it in our own lives, failure can be a great teacher. I’d say it’s just good meeting design to find a place for it in our programs.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.