Failure knows no distinction to whether our institution is in business, government, education, or the nonprofit sector. Facing Failure is a new monthly series that I have launched today with the civic-minded publication Pollen. The goal for this column is to bring the topic of failure to the forefront of our civic conversations in an attempt to remove the negative stigma. I intend to do this by sharing stories and the lessons learned from business, nonprofit, education, and government sector failures. The best hope for this column would be that we are able to learn from each other and strengthen our Pollen community. If you have a story that you would like to share please reach out and connect via my contact information below.
From the October 1st Pollen publication:
Pure and simple, a failure is when something that we were trying to accomplish fell short of what was required or projected.
There is no inherent blame or shame in the word itself although it is often inferred. The reality is that we all “fail” to reach expectations on a daily basis in our personal and professional lives.
Failure knows no distinction to whether our institution is in business, government, education, or the nonprofit sector.
Because of the negatives consequences of failure, many of us have fallen into the trap of avoiding our failures and thus frequently not learning from them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Instead if we choose to understand and openly address our issues with failure, we can ensure that we are learning from them. What does it look like when we use this knowledge to strengthen our institutions rather than discard these lessons due to embarrassment and shame?
Mistake vs. Failure
A mistake is an incorrect, unwise, or unfortunate act or decision. A mistake can be caused by bad judgment, a lack of information, or a lack of attention to detail. While a mistake can lead to failure they don’t always have to end in failure. We make numerous mistakes every day without serious consequence. We would prefer to avoid making mistakes but without perfect attention and perfect prediction they are inevitable. Conversely, a failure doesn’t always have to stem from a mistake.
Over the last two decades of my career I have spent most of my time trying to build new business platforms, first as a systems programmer and later driving innovation and new business development. Oftentimes things wouldn’t go exactly as we had planned. We would recognize this and would make adjustments along the way. As a programmer, this was a completely natural state of the world. You would write code, you would test the code, and then you would fix the bugs in the code. As I moved out of the programming world I noticed that everyone seemed less and less tolerant of making errors.
At times I have witnessed executives intentionally trying to cover up their failures by sweeping them under the rug and heading in the opposite direction. While disappointing, I came to believe that this too was a natural state of the world. Most executives don’t get promoted to the C-suite based on their long list of failures. Many have gotten promoted in spite of their failures but never because of them. Failure in business often times meant missing that promotion, losing that bonus or even getting fired.
The problem with continually avoiding our failures is that we never actually learn from them. We are too busy shoving them under the rug to step back and dissect what had happened. As such, we will frequently repeat the same errors. During my last stint in the corporate world I tried to address this issue. For two years I ran a series of “Failure Forums” at Best Buy where company leaders would share their insights from their failed initiatives. They would get up in front of the company and share what they had accomplished, what they had learned, and what they would have done differently. We would follow up each presentation with a question and answer session with the audience.
Originally I thought the problem of avoiding failures was unique to my organization. As I shared this work with others outside of my company I learned that it was an epidemic in many large organizations.
As I have continued my research on failure for my writing and consulting I was surprised to see how prevalent the issue is beyond the competitive business world. The fear, stigma, and consequences of failure are just as real but for slightly different reasons. In many of these organizations the job security and compensation issue is still a concern but more important is the consideration that failure can risk the survival of the organization. With many nonprofit organizations a large portion of their funding is from foundation grants and large donors. The rationale behind the fear is that if those groups suspect that an organization is not competent or is using their money unwisely (i.e. failing too much) they could pull their funding. For nonprofits, reputation is everything when seeking funding.
Facing Failure in Sub-Saharan Africa
A great example of this challenge comes from the work of Ashley Good (@admitfailure), formerly with Engineers without Borders Canada (EWBC). She has been pressing the issue of failure in the nonprofit space for years. While at EWBC, Ashley started an Annual Failure Report in an attempt to shine a light on failures from development organizations. Her goal was for organizations to learn from the failures of others so that they would not be repeated. One of the failure stories was from a group involved in digging wells in Sub-Saharan Africa. The organization had gone back years later to check on the wells and found that many of them were no longer working. The wells had needed to be maintained but the group had failed to train anyone to fix them or to alert someone who could help when the well had broken.
Failure in this arena is much bigger than missing that promotion, losing that bonus, or even getting fired – failure in third world development projects could cost lives. If these development organizations are not sharing their failures with the other organizations that are attempting similar initiatives then they are only propagating their failures.
This is just one example on the importance of learning from our failures but there is so much more that we can be doing.
If you have a story or insight that you would like to share please reach out to me via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @huntm. I will do my best to make sure that these stories are shared so that we can all learn together.