Participant-led projects; why you have to be prepared to fail.

As trainers and facilitators, we are all familiar with the feeling: you invent a project, it’s your baby; you love it and cherish it, but there its when you have to let it go; release it into the wild and let it survive on its own – or not. Never more is that the case than with participant-led projects such as Creative Breaks.

Of course, it’s a risk. No matter how carefully you plan, no matter the quality of your support system, there’s an inherent danger in allowing someone else to take over your meticulously developed project. They could take it in a direction you don’t like, fail to deliver on the primary objectives, or just fail to deliver at all.

However, with participant-led projects, this is the risk that we take, and the joy of the experience. We do our best to give each of the participants the skills and knowledge they need to complete their chosen project and offer them a mentor and as much ongoing support as we possibly can. But, at the end of the day, we hand over the project to the participants and with it, the possibility that the result may not be what we had originally dreamed.

It’s a difficult thing to do, a little like releasing a hand-reared pup into the wilderness and hoping it will survive the first night. We hope that we have prepared the participants well enough to succeed. We hope that the support that we give them will be sufficient. And, possibly most challenging of all, that we can stay distant and objective enough that – at all times – the participants remain in control.

When we do our jobs well, though, we provide unique opportunities for individuals to learn through doing; to take carefully managed and controlled risks that allow them to grow as people and professionals in their field and experience success in what they have chosen to do. And, believe me, the pride in seeing such a group of participants succeed in a project such as this is job-satisfaction the like of which people wait their entire career to experience.

Tensions easily become exposed, however, when organisations allow a group of participants to take ownership of a ‘mission-critical’ project; which is to say one which they cannot afford to fail. For what do those responsible for that project do if, or when, they see the participants heading in an unexpected direction? Or worse, floundering completely? How can they be expected not to intervene?

This is one of the very many reasons why participant-led projects require seemingly infinite amounts of detailed thought and planning: because sometimes they are not the right approach. If you’re going to let other people run your project – or part of it – you have to be prepared for it to fail. All of this becomes especially true if those people are relatively inexperienced, relatively new individuals, just as we were when we started on Creative Breaks back in September 2015.

If you aren’t prepared to allow your project to fail, then you won’t be able to keep your hands off it. All too quickly then it will cease to be a participant-led project; the quality of the experience and learning for the participants will suffer and whether the aims of the project succeed or not, you as the facilitator will have failed. You will have failed in your job to provide the best learning experience for your participants.

At the end of the day, there are very few bigger motivators in life than the fear of failure. But there are also few better feelings than triumphing over that very risk. By exposing, albeit in a controlled way, your participants to the risk of failure, the satisfaction that they – and you – will experience when they succeed will be all the greater.

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