My Recipe for a Failure Party

and why you should try it.

Fancy a different kind of party, where the usual suspects don’t always steal the show? Try my Failure Party recipe and you’ll be amazed.

The purpose of a Failure Party is to reinforce the message that failures are okay and to spread the learning to a large group.

Ingredients

Serves 1 in-person party of up to 50 people
(Covid-19 restrictions may apply)
See bottom for an online Failure Party variation

  • A large enough room
  • An invitation
  • Encouragement & persuasion
  • Two or more recent failures (make sure they are the right kind of failure, we don’t want to celebrate preventable failures)
  • Flags, garlands or other decorations
  • Some beverages and/or snacks
  • Certificates (one for each failure)
  • A (shareable) prize

Method

If this is your first Failure Party, allow at least 2–3 weeks of preparation. Start by preparing a way to collect failures. Having failures is a prerequisite to having a Failure Party. I’ve used a simple online form in the past. It had 3 questions: What is your name? What was the failure? What have we learned from it?

When collecting failures bear in mind that you want to help people to tell a good tale, and avoid people being blamed.

Next, book a large enough room to accommodate all the people you want to invite (typically the whole department). Due to Covid-19 restrictions, you may need to limit the number of participants, or opt for the online variation. Be sure to book it earlier than your intended start time, so you have a bit of time to decorate the room.

Then send out a carefully crafted invitation for the party.

Invitation email for the first Failure Party
Invitation email for the first Failure Party
The first invitation email we sent out

It is quite likely that people will be hesitant to share their failures, particularly at the first Failure Party. You will need to remind people, encourage them, challenge them, support them, reassure them, charm them, maybe even stalk them. It’s great if you can get a manager/leader to share a failure.

When you have a few candidates, help them create a clear story. It should be short, clear, and the learning must be clear too. Bonus points if it is fun, if the failure was spectacular in some way, and if the learning is widely applicable. Agree how much time each candidate gets to present their failure.

It’s good to remind people about the party, and to confirm that it is going ahead and you have some failures to share.

Once you’re sure you can go ahead, it’s time to get the rest of the ingredients. Fetch some decorations, get some beverages and/or snacks, create certificates to hand out to people that share their failures, and buy or make a small prize.

An example template for a Certificate

More about why the prize is needed in the next step. For now, all you need to know is that you’ll want 1 small prize. I prefer prizes that can be shared, like a box of chocolates.

When it’s time for the party, make sure you’re there early so you can decorate it. I like to have a small area for the presenters. You may add a projector or large screen to show slides, but make sure the number of slides is minimal! I also like to have a table to display the certificates and the prize; build up a bit of anticipation.

Just to be sure, get some volunteers to go round the office to remind people that the party is about to start. Nothing worse than a party without the guests!

Start with a short introduction. For example, explain that most failures are not blameworthy, that in our complex world failure is inevitable, and that a failure is okay as long as we learn from it. Remember that’s the purpose of the party: to reinforce the message that failures are okay and to spread the learning to a large group.

Announce each presenter, ask for applause, and make sure they present within the agreed timebox. If they forget to explain the learning, be sure to ask them about it.

When all failures have been presented (2 or 3 on your first party is enough to get things going), it’s time to select a winner. Ask the audience to vote for the failure that gave the greatest learning. There are lots of ways to vote. Pre-Covid I enjoyed sending each presenter to a different corner of the room and the audience could vote by walking to that corner.

Don’t forget to trigger a big round of applause. Hand a certificate to each presenter and give the prize to the winner. I like to then subtly remark that the party is all about sharing: sharing the learnings, and sharing the prize. Chocolates are an easy way to improve your chances that people will show up for the next Failure Party!

Be sure to have the next date selected so you can finish the party by inviting people to the next one!

Variation: Online Failure Party

If for whatever reason you cannot hold an in-person Failure Party, or if you simply prefer online parties, here is what you need to change.

Assuming you’re going fully online, for example with everyone working from home, there are a few small changes you’ll need to make.

I recommend using the same ingredients, with 1 change and 1 addition.

The “large enough room” needs to be a large enough video call. This will work with e.g. Zoom or Microsoft Teams. But you could be more adventurous and try something like Gather Town or Kumospace.

In addition, you will need some way of online voting. I like to keep it simple, so perhaps Raise Hand functionality is good enough, or you can use the chat. Avoiding adding extra tools if you can. If you’ve opted for Gather Town or Kumospace, you could simply do the online equivalent of sending the presenters to a corner of the room and letting the audience vote with their feet.

In essence, the preparation for an online Failure Party is identical to the preparation for an in-person Failure Party. I find it a bit harder to informally meet and influence people online, but there are ways and I’m sure you’ll work out what works for you.

There are lots of ways to “decorate” the online meeting. You can physically decorate your own room, you can have a virtual background, special effects, etc. Go wild, make it a party to remember!

The main difference is with the beverages/snacks, certificates and prize. There are a few options here.

For the beverages/snacks the easiest way is to ask people to bring their own. If at all possible, you can consider sending a small parcel with e.g. a snack and a party hat to peoples home address, or sending them a voucher to get their own snacks for free.

The certificates you can either do digitally: present them during the party and email them to the recipients afterwards. Or you can print them, show them during the party and send them to the recipients afterwards.

The prize is trickier. You could still get a box of chocolates, show it during the party and send it to the winner afterwards (or deliver it in person and use it as a photo opportunity). However, this misses out on the sharing part. If you’re sending a small parcel for beverages/snacks/party hats, then you could add a mini-prize to each person. Be sure to include instructions, like “Do not open until instructed to do so”.

Have you tried this recipe?

I really enjoyed organizing Failure Parties. The examples above were a joint effort with former colleague Nika.

If you’ve tried this recipe, or perhaps a variation of it, please share! I’d love to hear how it went!

Do you need help organizing a Failure Party? Want to learn more about learning through failures, or creating a high-performing team through psychological safety and motivation? Have a look what we have to offer.

Father, learner, coach & agilist. I'm passionate about nature and helping people become their best selves.