Embracing Failure and Recognising Success: Interview with Matt Matheson

man smiles towards camera
Matt Mattheson has been leading workshops about changing creative behaviours across a wide range of sectors - not just the digital space. Image reproduced with permission, via Matt Mattheson.

In advance of our Ideas Test Embracing Failure event on July 14 2016, led by Matt Matheson, Jon Pratty from Ideas Test interviewed Matt about some of the ideas behind the workshop.

Jon: So who do you think this workshop is aimed at?

Matt: I think the workshop is aimed at anybody who struggles with failure. I hate the phrase ‘accepting failure,’ but a lot of people beat themselves up for making mistakes; or they have overly high expectations of themselves or the work that they’re producing. Or perhaps they limit what they produce, as they’re not willing to take risks, or have open dialogue about some of the things that maybe weren’t as positive as they would have liked to have seen. Sometimes they generally see things in a negative way and struggle to see things in a positive light. So anyone who struggles to see negative situations in a positive light, or perhaps is scared of taking risks because of some unfounded possible repercussions that may be in their mind; it’ll be aimed at those people.

Jon: How do you think that translates across to people in the culture sector? So, artists or creative people working in the public sector, rather than people working in the design world or in a digital space?

Matt: Hmm, interesting. I think the principle is the same. I mean, the concept itself comes from the arts world anyway, it comes from improvisation. That’s the concept that there are no such things as failures, just experiences and how we then choose to respond to them. And you can either respond in a knee-jerk, automatic, unconscious way, which tends to be driven by our habits of previous experiences, or we can consciously respond to them, and try to search for the good in experiences.

I think that can be applied to any sector, not just culture, not just business, not just development. I think any sector could do with a healthy dose from that kind of thinking.

Jon: Could you give me some examples of the kinds of situations that you’re talking about? In other words, outside of the creative industries, but say in a charity environment or a third sector environment?

Matt: I have a question back for you, really, which is, what do you think the problems they’re facing are?

Jon: Good question. Basically, culture people – and perhaps the charity sector – are wrestling with the very likely position that, in the face of further government austerity measures or EU funding cuts, that this is all about finding ways to succeed and be creative on probably fewer resources.

Matt: Sure, sure. We can definitely give those at the workshop a couple of tools to take back immediately to help them think more creatively, and when I say ‘think creatively’ I don’t mean somebody kind of locking themselves away in a room and having their artistic, creative moment. What I mean here is using the people resources around you to create something together. 

That may be coming up with a campaign, or creating an idea for something, or forming a team, or finding a way to work with a reduced capacity team. Those are some of the things we’ll look at; what’s a couple of little ways to just switch communication behaviour between people, so that you go forward instead of going, you know, backwards. There’s a lot of judging that comes into daily dialogue with each other, that we don’t even think about, that’s just second nature. It’s part of our language, but when highlighted – which we’ll do through this workshop – will make you go ‘Ah, I didn’t realise I’d said that’ all the time. The use of the word ‘but’ and stuff like that.

We’ll play around with what happens when you create an environment and switch the word ‘but’ to ‘yes.’ Little things like that can steer you off in a different direction, that will open different pathways up. So those are the kind of tools we’re going to give people to help when they’re struggling, or perhaps have less resources, and just a way to quickly move forward with what you’ve got, instead of worrying about what you haven’t.

Jon: So, going forwards, is this actually about recognising success? Actually it’s not about recognising success, is it? It’s actually about not being afraid to fail, going forwards as a team, embracing the possibility that you might not get any funding but realising that you may move forwards as a team, as a group. Your communication might improve, your approach and your morale might improve. There’s a whole series of gains to be got from striving, rather than just saying, ‘Well oh no, we’re not going to bother with that because we know there’s no funding for it’.

Matt: That’s it, and it’s also – and we’ll do a little bit of work on this in the session – it’s also looking for the good in situations instead of looking for the bad. You know, we’ll do some fun activities where we practise passing good news and bad news around a group and it’ll be the responsibility of the person receiving the bad news to counter that with a positive response.

There’ll be a bad response and there’ll be a positive response; you know, that kind of thing. We can start playing with the idea that, ‘that’s bad, but we can make it good,’ or, ‘that’s bad but we can also make it good’. That kind of idea of whatever it is that comes to you, how can you go, ‘right, is it really bad, or what can I learn from this? How can I get something good out of this?’

Jon: It strikes me that a very obvious failure situation people in the culture sector find themselves in, is when they make a funding application to the Arts Council and they get a rejection. There are plenty of artists and heritage and cultural organisations that receive two or three of these rejections a year, and it can end up with them actually ceasing to practise as artists, because they get to the point where they are so fed up with asking and being turned down that it actually stops them from working. That’s a really crippling situation to be in; there are clearly things to learn from every one of those knock backs, aren’t there?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot that can be learnt from everything, if we just look for it, and there is good in everything if we just recognise it. But our kind of non-mindful, default responses are often to pick holes in, or look for problems, as opposed to looking to solutions or looking for good things. Even the most horrible situations in the world have good come out of them, if you know how to look for them. You know sometimes you have to think a little bit differently about it, but it’s always possible, good scenarios can come out of anything, no matter how dire or tragic or what it may be.

Jon: Can you give me one recent experience of your own where you recognised success was occurring?

Matt: I’m very, very happy with how some work went with a particular client I had that went a little bit unplanned. It was an individual coaching client, one-on-one and the work was to help her build confidence to step out on stage at a huge conference. We went on this wonderful journey together from session one, which was very nervous, very unsure, just lacking confidence, to leaping miles ahead and having beautiful feedback from the audience and it just going swimmingly. For me, that was a high point client-wise and a big success from a coaching point of view, because formal coaching sessions are something a little bit newer for me than the workshop stuff. Very happy with that.

Jon: Could you tell that it was going well when you doing it? Did you feel that there was something this person had, that you knew you could bring out?

Matt: Absolutely, absolutely. I could see it week after week after week. Growing, and seeing how it was being tested in the workplace. Working with this particular client lifted my spirits every week because I was seeing where it was going and it was beautiful. I could see it working, week on week, and other people could as well, which was lovely. Relationships were being changed between her and the people she was working with – even the people outside work – so it was lovely to see. So it made me very happy.

Jon: So actually that’s a realisation that it’s an instinctive recognition of success which is important too, isn’t it?

Matt: Yes; and just looking for those indicators to help you understand what direction you’re going in; the best way to find out how you’re doing, is with the person you’re speaking to. So it’s a really, really good indicator. In improvisation, we say that your saviour is your partner; so you step out on stage, just two of you, and nobody knows who is going to say what, or where the story is going to go. But you know that if your scene partner has got your back, you’ve got their back. It’s your role to make each other look good and just respond to each other. Just respond to what’s happening in the moment and they’ll let you know where you’re going and they’ll let you know where they’re going, and you’ll steer it together.

Jon: Thanks Matt!