Institute of Brilliant Failures


The Netherlands

Policy areas

Organisation name Institute of Brilliant Failures Foundation

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Contact person: Prof. dr. Paul Louis Iske

The public sector is a complex system and is under pressure from rapid developments in technology, economy, environment and social relations. But it is also a system of people who are constantly trying to make society better, with a focus on prosperity and well-being for as many people as possible. This is where innovation and learning can take place.

The message spread from the Institute of Brilliant Failures (in Dutch: Instituut voor Briljante Mislukkingen – IvBM), is that only by experimenting, making mistakes and making adjustments can individuals learn their abilities. The IvBM has the mission to highlight the importance of experimentation to achieve paradigm shifts and breakthrough innovation, striving for fear reduction, so that people are not afraid to experiment and to share their learning from endeavours that did not meet expectations. The main objective is to improve the climate for accepting and learning from failures.

The IvBM was established 15 years ago by the founder, Prof. Paul Iske, who at the time was Chief Dialogues Officer at ABN AMRO Bank and participated in a study on bankruptcy. This revealed that many successful entrepreneurs claimed that their later success was partly due to the application of the lessons they learnt during previous financial distress.

The results were consistent with the outcome of the Phoenix project – commissioned by the EU – which confirmed that, on average, restarters make a greater contribution to economic growth compared to first-time entrepreneurs.

Important knowledge that is gained during processes that may not be successful or simply fail, must not be lost.

In recent years, the Institute for Brilliant Failures has done much to increase the capacity for experimentation and learning in the public sector, with a particular focus on healthcare because it is an evolving system, a developing and learning environment.

The activities of the Institute for Brilliant Failures cover all phases of the change process. They introduce people and organisations to the concept of Brilliant Failures, they organise workshops and develop instruments to give shape to learning from unexpected developments.

For the learning process, a method has been developed to create ‘failure intelligence’, based on patterns of failure that can be easily recognised and discussed using so-called archetypes. This can be applied in the three different stages of the learning cycle: learning before, learning during and learning after. Before starting something (failure ahead), the methodology and tools of the Institute for Brilliant Failures allow individuals to think about possible barriers and pitfalls and address them, partly by using the lessons from others who have experienced similar failure patterns (anticipation). While working on something, it becomes clear earlier why things are not going as expected so mitigating measures can be taken, again using experience from elsewhere or earlier (reacting). Finally, after completing a project, or part of it, individuals can look back and identify the essential learning experiences and make them shareable, without having to record all the details of the activity, but focusing on making the most important learning points accessible for future use (reflecting).

The programme Healthcare as an evolving system has been receiving support from the Ministry of Healthcare, Welfare and Sports for more than seven years, including a PhD study that is focusing on the impact of learning from failure.

Moreover, other ministries, such as Foreign Affairs, Justice and Security, Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, Education, Culture and Science, and Infrastructure and Water Management, have asked for lectures, workshops, keynotes and other services provided by the IvBM.

The scope and number of activities of the institute is growing and it has been featured in numerous interviews and articles in governmental magazines, websites, conferences, TEDx talks and in a radio programme of the Dutch broadcasting company Business News Radio. To support the dissemination of lessons learnt from the projects that have been submitted and researched by the IvBM, several tools are being used including the ‘Journal of Brilliant Failures’. The fourth edition was published on March 2021 and, as of March 2022, the magazine is available online free of charge.

The reach of the IvBM has expanded beyond the Dutch boundaries; it is active in countries such as South Korea (a collaboration with Sogang University, Seoul), Norway (Open Innovation Lab of Norway), South Africa (Stellenbosch University), India (Tata Consultancy Services) and lectures are delivered in many other countries in Europe and Asia.

The initiatives and results of the Institute of Brilliant Failures are applicable everywhere in society. The activities of the IvBM itself focus on learning and double-loop learning. The methodology it has developed, the ‘failure intelligence’, is based on pattern recognition, translated into archetypes that everyone can relate to. This facilitates knowledge transfer from one context to the other.

The underlying theme, ‘two-fold fear reduction’, i.e. reducing the fear of failing and reducing the fear to talk about things that fail, is universally relevant and especially in governmental and public service related organisations.

The transfer of the approach itself, as well as the lessons learnt from projects that have been analysed, is crossing boundaries: geographically, disciplinary, organisationally and culturally.

The individuals who have been exposed to the IvBM’s methodology, thanks to workshops and projects that the institute offers, can share their experience with others and apply them elsewhere.

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