I see patterns. Fear not, this isn’t the introduction to a new M. Night Shyamalan movie but I do enjoy opportunities where I can connect the dots. Maybe it is the linear, logical, left –brain, former programmer in me but I relish when I find patterns that emerge across different disciplines, groups, organizations, etc. Five years ago I was part of a public policy group that mixed professionals from different worlds – for-profit, nonprofit, government, education, etc. The goal of the program was to advance public policy awareness and build public policy leadership. What I quickly recognized was that many of the same issues that were challenging me in the “for-profit innovation arena” were also plaguing these other groups. The challenges of funding, personal & organizational risk, managing expectations, and the fear or failure were consistent. There were some nuances but there was far more similarity that difference.
I work with companies large and small who are trying to develop a sustainable innovation practice. They don’t just want to launch an idea on a wing and a prayer. They want to find a repeatable process that can improve their chances of success. Admittedly they have tried the wing and prayer route before and they know it doesn’t work. The truth is that most of these disruptive or exponential innovation initiatives don’t succeed. They fail. The challenge that these companies face is that they are trying to build the tools and processes but they struggle to address the culture. They never address the necessity of failure.
The truth is that nonprofits experience failure just like every for-profit business: new initiatives fall short of expectations, the synergy of partnerships fails to materialize, or expansion plans overburden an organization’s cash flow. But because nonprofits are so reliant on donations and grants to fund their operations even mentioning the word failure can be lethal. The perception, and perhaps reality, is that no donor wants to think that their contribution is being wasted and no foundation wants to report back to their board on “failed” investments. The result is that “safer is better” and failures are frequently covered up.
Last week I gave a presentation to a class of undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. The discussion was centered on the topic of failure and how the fear of business failure is relative based on where we live in the world. The students have spent the better part of the last year working on their startup business ideas and I was impressed with what the teams were able to accomplish and where they had admitted their failures. During the discussion one brave student admitted that he had felt a fear of failing during the course of launching their student business. When asked why he had explained that all of the students knew which projects from the previous year had done well and which had failed. He didn’t want his project to be on this year’s list of failed projects. He was interviewing with potential future employers and he wanted to be able to talk about his success.
There are few organizations in the world that better understand the importance of learning from our failures than the United States Armed Forces. In fact, every branch of the US military uses an After Action Review (AAR) process to analyze the successes or failures of their missions by examining what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better next time. The AAR is focused on creating a clear comparison of what were the intended results vs. the actual results.
A friend and former colleague who knows of my interest and passion for better understanding failure had forwarded a link to me a few months back for www.admittingfailure.com. The site is hosted by Ashley Good from the group Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWBC). Ashley launched the site in January 2011 as part of a growing movement in bringing transparency to failures in the international development sphere. The people working in the non-profit sector are not much different to those working in for-profit businesses when it comes to failure. A statement from the site notes that “The development community is failing…to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment.”
Today Peter Sims wrote about my favorite topic Failure in an article for the HBR Blog titled “The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure.” Sims comments on how parents, teachers, and bosses all push us to prevent errors and mitigate risks. He points out how entrepreneurs and designers have a different frame of mind toward failure seeing “mistakes” as part of the trial-and-error processes of driving innovation. Sims calls for each of us to revolt against this thinking and to no longer be “shackled by these norms.”
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