An Example of Good: Non-Profit Embraces Transparency, Publishes Fifth Annual Failure Report

So everyone is talking about the importance of “transparency” in business these days – customer transparency, financial transparency, even radical transparency.  Do you think you organization is open and transparent?  Maybe your company uses social media to continually engage your constituents in every possible social media vehicle or maybe your CMO has been a little “overly transparent” when on more than one occasion he shared a corporate secret via his new blog.  Sure you’ll talk about your wins, your new strategy, or your latest promotions but have you ever been transparent with your failures?  Have you ever published an annual report that detailed your failed initiatives and the failures in your operations?

Last year I wrote about the Canadian Chapter of Engineers without Borders (@EWB) who had started a blog where development organizations from around the world could share their failures with the hope that other organizations can learn from their mistakes (previous article).  I had noted how this group felt that it was imperative that they do this because their failures could have such dire consequences.  In business, if we fail it might mean a loss of job or it might impact to our compensation but with NGO development groups working in third world countries, failure can cost lives.

Well, EWB continues to drive this thinking forward and they just published their fifth Failure Report which highlights stories of failed development projects in Ghana, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Uganda as well as failures in their internal operations, including: planning and communication processes, organizational decision-making, and personal leadership.  EWB has opened the proverbial kimono for all to see and in doing so they are freeing themselves from the binds of perfection by admitting their failures.  Ashley Good (@AdmitFailure), the EWB point person for much of this work, describes the importance of sharing these failures in that they “shed insight into systemic issues, highlight important values, [and] build acceptance of the risk inherent in innovation.

EWB recognizes the power of Systems Thinking (see Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline) where every “Decision” is followed by an “Action” and every action has a “Reaction.”  Those reactions play a very important role in our decision making; they are the feedback loops that provide us with information to help us make better decisions.  Sometimes those reactions are positive and sometimes they are negative but both types help us better understand our environment, our direction, and the accuracy of our decision making.  Most innovators will tell you that they have learned far more from their failures, those negative feedback loops, than from their successes.

Food For Thought:

  • EWB has built a strong culture of self-awareness, transparency, and humility.  Are those values similar to the values that your organization espouses to?
  • What would it take for your organization to be this open with their failures?  Is it ever possible?
  • What would it take for your team to be this open with their failures?  Is it ever possible?

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