Book launch speech, 29th June 2019: James Devine, Chief Executive, Medway NHS Foundation Trust

When asked to speak with a topic like failing intelligently, you are never quite sure whether Caris has formed a view that you are someone who has failed intelligently, or whether she is discreetly telling you that you have failed unintelligently but regardless I am genuinely pleased to be here tonight and share in this very special occasion.

Some failure in life is evitable.  It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default – <JK Rowling>

No more perhaps than in healthcare where if our nurses, anaesthetists and surgeons didn’t take calculated risks, we may still be living in a world where people die needlessly from disease and conditions that today we treat with relatively simple surgery or treatment.  

But as a chief executive and former HR Director, it perhaps will be no surprise that I believe it is how an organisation responds and supports its people to take those risks – to help them prepare to fail intelligently – we often refer to this as ‘culture’ and I’ll come back to that

But that is where the secret lies – but creating the right environment takes time and hard work.  In healthcare, we work with ambiguity, ego, competitiveness,– yet years on, that hasn’t materially changed.  Why? Well, I think that the book perhaps answers that question.  We have 2 fundamental needs – love and the need to achieve, everyone needs to feel important. Yet we live in a world where to succeed is seen to be more important than to love – but how connected are they or do they need to be, in order for you to fail intelligently and confidently?

When you don’t create the right culture, an organisation can become paralysed – no-one will make decisions or all decisions are made by the most senior person – and often because people don’t want to get blamed if it all goes wrong.  As I said, that’s the secret – people.  Whether we recognise love or achievement, we are all human.  All of us will fail, and for healthcare organisations, we must always recognise that it is the people that will generate the culture – and the culture that supports people to plan for failure.  It doesn’t have to immediately generate a negative thought or feeling.

The author Stephen King once said that we make up the horrors to help us cope with the real ones – and that’s often the case with failure – we fear it so much, because it becomes something so big and irrational in our minds, that we don’t take the risk.  That could be in your professional careers, or in your personal lives as we stand here tonight.  But often not taking the risk, means that only do you not fail and learn, but you may miss out on something or someone, and that something or someone may be the best thing that ever happened to you – if only we didn’t listen to that critical inner voice, or planned better for the inevitable failure.

Growing up, we are not taught to fail, our instinctive reactions to failure are therefore usually defensive – But as we all know, failure is inevitable.  It is how prepared we are for that failure that drives us forward, and allows us to learn. In the organisational context, some of you will know that the average tenure for a Chief Executive in the NHS is just 22 months – why, because often they fail in the eyes of regulators and Boards, that they move on, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not – is it because they do not bring perceived success quick enough or create the right culture. But how in that timeframe is one expected to fail intelligently, encourage others to do the same, be given the freedom to get things wrong and measure tangible success?  Our attitude toward failure is more important that our attitude toward success and that’s because one is seen to be negative and the other positive – I don’t think failure is always negative – how many of you tonight were in relationships with the wrong person, but you didn’t realise it until you found the right one – I hope that right one is the one you are here with tonight.  How many of you thought your career dreams were impossible at times, until you took the risk and got there.  How many of you thought you would ever have a book published unless you took the risk and prepared to fail? 

It doesn’t mean you hold back your fears of failure or rejection, but you accept that some failure is inevitable and plan for it – often the failure is far less that you ever imagined it to be to the point that you ask yourself what you were so scared of.

I mentioned earlier the 2 fundamental needs of love and the need to achieve.  Are they mutually exclusive?  Can you really achieve unless you love and are loved? On the need to achieve, we take calculated risks when we move from one employer to another, or take on that new project, or undertake surgery on a patient that your colleagues have declined. Is the need to achieve and love also to feel supported, appreciated and recognised in a personal or professional life? I think so.

On love specifically, to truly give your heart to something or someone fully and without question, is a risk – but like planning to fail intelligently, you don’t give these precious things to just anyone.  You give them to someone who you know will support you to achieve and love you back.  Professionally, or personally, when you get it right, all your past fears, failings or rejections, don’t mean anything anymore.

And despite fears of failure or rejection, like a phoenix that continues to rise from the flames, we know that success is not final, failure is not fatal – it is the courage to continue that counts.

Thank you , I hope you have a wonderful evening.