Around 120 people celebrated failure on May 30, at Screw Up 2018, by sharing stories and with personal fails during workshops. In a sweltering Grand Theatre Groningen, professional short track ice skater Yara van Kerkhof discussed the ups and downs of her sports career, entrepreneur Ellen van Acht talked about the challenges of rebranding a chain of shoe stores, and social scientist Wander Jager explained the science behind fails. And there were some great tunes provided by the Small Town Bandits and a hilarious performance by improv theater group Entropy.
We see success and failure as two distinctly different things. The first is celebrated, the latter is pointed out, ridiculed and sometimes even punished. Screw Up wants to change that mentality and get rid of the culture of fear, because making mistakes is very much a part of success. None other than TV presenter Wilfried de Jong hosted the evening and interviewed the folks behind the fails.
How do you go about changing the image of a well known franchise? Ellen van Acht took up the challenge when she and her partner bought Scapino, the then bankrupt chain of fashion and shoe stores. If ever there’s a time for a fresh start and a new image to go along with it, this was it, thought Ellen, who was in charge of the rebranding campaign. The idea was to change the logo and the look and feel of the stores from the familiar red to green.
“We were really ambitious”, Ellen says. “We wanted to change everything, innovate completely and as fast as we could. We realized that changing the logo and the look and feel couldn’t be a gradual process, because otherwise customers wouldn’t get it. That meant all the preparations had to be done perfectly.
What we didn’t realize, was renovating all the 168 different stores all at once just wasn’t realistic, taking into account our own planning.”
Fixing the inherited processes and logistics was no easy feat, and the rebranding campaign proved to be challenging too. “When we were finally ready to launch, I was too afraid to go through with it. For something like this to work, everything needs to change from the ground up, but that just wasn’t possible.” They decided on a different course, still ambitious, but something that works for the company. “In the end, we’re also talking about jobs, people’s livelihoods, which is just as important to us.”
From low expectations to the Olympics
Short track speed skater Yara van Kerkhof is at the peak of her career. She won silver and bronze medals during the last Winter Olympics, while also setting a new Olympic record. One of her most important life lessons came from her coach, who taught her to set high goals. “He got really angry with me one time”, she says.
“I made it to the B finals, and I didn’t win, but I still thought I did pretty okay”, Yara continues. “So at first, I didn’t understand why he was angry. He said I should be skating in A finals and winning them, because why train every day and settle for anything less? He was absolutely right. I guess deep down I was afraid to fail deep, so I had low expectations. But that was a wake up call, so the very next game, I was skating in the A finals.”
Just two weeks ago, Yara made the headlines in a less positive way; allegations of doping, which she kept quiet for over a year. She was acquitted the day she travelled to Korea, but the doping organization decided to appeal and the case is still pending.
Yara had a heart condition when she was young, for which she had undergone surgery. The hemoglobin levels in her blood change faster than other people, she says, but in sports, it’s also a sign of doping use. In retrospect, she admits she should have been more transparent: “But with the Olympics coming up, I just didn’t want the distraction of a media circus. I realize now it might look suspicious in trying to keep a lid on it, but I just wanted to focus on winning. I’m actually a little relieved that it’s out now. It’s been a difficult year, with so many blood tests and check-ups. But because of my innocence, all the evidence we’ve collected, along with expert opinions, I’m confident things will turn out well.”
The science of fail
University of Groningen researcher Wander Jager specializes in social complexity. He thinks our current ideas about society, based on an industrial way of thinking, is holding us back: “It’s this centralized, top-down way of thinking, based on measurable results, that causes this culture of avoiding failure. But making mistakes is how we learn to get better and it’s also how we learn to calculate risk.”
Sharing mistakes is very important, according to Wander. “There are stupid mistakes of course, which happen to everyone, but sometimes really well thought out choices turn out to be wrong. Those are the kind of mistakes that are really valuable, because we can all learn from them.”