Chapter extract from The Relationship is the Project

By Jade Lillie


We all fail – as individuals, as groups and collectives, as organisations, and as a sector. Sometimes, those failures are can be both serious and significant. Sometimes, we make mistakes that we, or a project, can’t come back from – these can be considered an #epicfail.

You may have burned an important relationship, failed to produce an outcome that people can be proud of, or failed to produce anything at all. You may have mis-stepped on an important cultural issue. You may have had to return funding or shut a project down. The problem with an ‘epic fail’ in community-engaged contexts is that they tend to be quite public. They can impact someone’s experience of a project or organisation and their experience of the artists or communities involved. That’s why epic fails in community-engaged experiences sometimes feel just that… epic.

Often, we frame these failures as ‘things we can do better’, softening the language to make it more palatable. But doing so doesn’t allow us to grow or to really own the things we haven’t done well.

The epic fail should be something we can share – something we can talk about, learn from and reflect upon together. We can then use this as an opportunity to do things differently in the future.

As practitioners, as collaborators, as facilitators and as leaders, we need to be able to have these conversations. While they’re not always easy (particularly when they involve personal mistakes), we all grow from having these conversations and looking at the ways we could do better.


Why we fail

The key reasons practitioners and projects fail include:

  • Communication: this includes a lack of communication between partners and stakeholders, or differences in the ways they communicate. This is the main way people and projects fail to deliver. Clear and transparent communication isn’t always easy, but it is important. Even if there are multiple agendas at play and you don’t wish to share every detail with everyone involved, always answer questions and be as transparent as possible about the work you are doing together.
  • Ego: when ego overrides the values of a project or personalities override the purpose, the most important thing is to focus on the work. What is the best outcome for the work?

What is the best path forward for the work?

  • Complacency: when the focus has come off the detail. If you are in an implementation phase, it is essential to make sure you’re on top of the detail. This means consistency, care and clarification – forget these things and the wheels start to come off.
  • Forced engagement: when you’ve received funding for a project and the circumstances have changed, don’t force it. You are better off giving the money back than forcing an outcome that is not aligning with the community context, timing or people needed to make it happen. Simply, do not do it.
  • Too many cooks: being a collective is one thing but a lack of clarity about who to come to with information or concerns is a problem. Who is looking after communications with the community and how can people get in touch? Ideally, there should be a door for people to show up at (this is why organisations tend to have more success in long-term engagement with communities).
  • Flexibility: being clear about the negotiable and non-negotiable aspects of a project is critical to success. This also allows for flexibility and transparency about when this is possible. Too often, the idea and concept have already been locked in before the start of a project, which leads to a lack of ability or willingness to negotiate with stakeholders or to adapt along the way. Flexibility is your best friend when it comes to working in community contexts.


Failing in leadership

Being the ‘best leader one can be’ is sometimes confused with ‘having all the answers’ – which is simply not possible. As leaders, we’re often the one’s that people come to with problems that need fixing. This can mean we rarely talk about our own epic fails in a meaningful and honest way. But failing to do so can erode trust in us as leaders (or in the organisations we represent), which can unfortunately, become quite personal. In these instances, try to think about the work rather than the personal and – once you have expressed your concerns or feedback, consider it said – let it go.

It is important to approach failure with an open mind, without judgement until all sides of a problem or a situation are clear. Try to remember that all people make mistakes and it is very rare for someone to actively undermine or aim to damage their co-workers or collaborators.

Always come back to the work – try navigating any issues by centering what is best for the work, rather than personality, where possible.

Leadership comes at all levels. In community-engaged contexts, the leaders are rarely the people at the ‘top’ of the organisation. Communities, partners and collaborators will all have selfidentified leaders. Step out of the hierarchy and meet people with the view that you are all leading the process and experience together.


The experimental epic fail

Community-engaged practice is often a deeply experimental practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we experiment within our projects, but that truly community-engaged work needs to combine a set of relationships, dynamics and moment-in-time experiences that come together to form a fuller picture.

This, in its true essence, can be considered an experimental act – in the same way that a scientist may undertake an ‘experiment’ that results in failure, success, or the creation of an entirely new and unexpected thing.

Facilitators of community-engaged experiences can understand their projects in the same way – as a well-structured, experimental approach to a social, cultural or political issue using arts and culture as their primary tools (in which failure may be as valid an outcome as success). Giving people an opportunity to correct a situation is an important part of developing relationships. But in an online world where things are ‘called out’ more than they are celebrated, in a practice that is not really encouraged to learn and fail, how do we have open conversations about the challenges and fails when working in community-engaged contexts? Rather than accusing someone of doing the ‘wrong’ thing – perhaps provide some feedback, share your own insights (calmly and respectfully) and then ask … how can I help?


Embracing the #epicfail

Failures are part of the work we do. They may become less prevalent as we become more experienced. We may become more familiar with crossroad moments and the ways that things can fail. We do our best to not make the same mistakes.

But failure is unavoidable. Often, the issues are more about relationships not working, miscommunications or timing than the logistics of a project themselves. Failure is part of the process. We learn the most from the times we make the greatest mistakes. We know we’ve learned from them when we can talk about them as key moments in our careers, as practice realisations that have stayed with us through the projects we went on to do.

And in how we use that learning to build conversations about the #epicfail into our work:

  • Starting early: as part of idea/concept development, include a section called “the ways we might fail”. In addition to a risk assessment, this could be the thing that kicks off a conversation between collaborators, artists, producers and communities about the ways that we might fail.
  • Knowing ourselves: we can ask ourselves about the strengths and weaknesses we have, and make those clear in our collaborating teams. For example, if you know you are not great at the ‘finishing’ part of a project, make sure there is another person on the ‘finishing’ stage in order to stay connected all the way to the end.
  • Sharing the stories: when debriefing a project or an idea, share all of the parts of the process. Include the things we did right as well as the things we managed to get wrong and would not do again.
  • Not pretending: there are words and phrases we use to convince everyone that everything about that project was a success. We’ve all done it. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to talk about the things we failed at and learned from? Sure, we all learn from the good things, but we learn from the not-so-good things more.

Given the chance, collaborators and communities will welcome the honesty and transparency of

these conversations.


Things to keep in mind

  • Develop relationships in a way that allow you to be honest and share the struggles of a project with your collaborators.
  • Make decisions about the work rather than the personalities or politics of a project.
  • Don’t ever lock a door shut or burn a bridge when it comes to relationships – you never know when you will be sitting across from that person or community again. It is important that you have closure on the last project before being faced with an awkward conversation about the next one.
  • When things go wrong, take responsibility for the things that are yours. It is important to acknowledge when things haven’t gone well. It is okay to say sorry.
  • Commit to learning from and sharing your mistakes.
  • Debrief with someone who is kind and has some experience in your setting.
  • Write about your fail. Where did you go wrong? What do you want to remember for next time?
  • Don’t try to be perfect – it is a trap!
  • Be kind to yourself through your failures.
  • Start clear, stay clear and finish clear.

To pre-order The Relationship is the Project please follow the link:


About the writer

Ph credit: Sarah Walker 2019

Jade Lillie is an executive, facilitator and cultural leader with 15 years of not-for-profit experience in arts and culture, community engagement, education and more recently, community health

Specialising in strategy, co-design, governance, people and culture, Jade has worked in government and non-governments settings in Queensland, Northern Territory, Victoria and SE Asia.

She is known for her skills and expertise in strategy development, governance capabilities and her commitment to collaboration, cultural leadership and advocacy in championing diversity and access.

She is currently working as a consultant for arts and cultural organisations in Australia along with her role as Director, Public Affairs at cohealth. Jade was the Director and CEO at Footscray Community Arts Centre from 2012 – 2017.

In 2017, Jade was the recipient of the prestigious Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship for her thought leadership in contemporary, community engaged practice.  Thanks to the time and space afforded through the fellowship, Jade’s book project, The Relationship is the Project will be published in early 2020. The RITP is a curated collection of works by leading contemporary, community engaged practitioners.

Jade is a Board Director for Diversity Arts Australia and Everybody Now!



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