The Social Sector’s F-Word — Failure
Yes — I said it: failure is the social sector’s F-word. We don’t talk about it or learn from it. It has become the word that is holding us back from greater success. I never realized how strange this was until I went to business school and failure was considered a badge of honor. There were venture capitalist firms that wouldn’t consider entrepreneur’s ideas unless they had a track record of failure. Why? Because they knew that an entrepreneur with past failures had grit and knew how to learn from his or her mistakes.
First, we must acknowledge the problem. And, part of the problem is the word itself and what it means when we fail. With high stakes in the social space, it is hard to admit when we have let down our clients, organizations and communities. That is why I love efforts to make failure more mainstream in the social space. One national example is the recent Be Fearless Hub launched by the Case Foundation to “highlight the powerful, fearless stories of people who are making big bets and letting urgency conquer fear.” They are asking changemakers across the globe to share their stories around their five Be Fearless principles. One of my favorite local fearless leaders recently retired from United Way and was famous for asking grantees, “What is your fabulous failure?” For some reason, using “fabulous” before the word, “failure,” made it easier to swallow. My own fabulous failure was when I led a team at the American Heart Association on childhood obesity. We had to move at light speed and, because of this, mistakes were inevitable. But, I found it was hard for my team to come to me with these mistakes when it was still possible to fix them. So, I changed the mindset. Instead of calling them mistakes or failures — which are clearly loaded words — we decided to call them “skips in the CD.” For those who remember CDs, skips happened all the time and you never knew the reason. So, when individuals came to me and said this, we instantly course-corrected without playing the blame game. Instead of focusing on beating ourselves up for making a mistake, we learned from it and fixed it. As they say in the corporate world, we learned how to “fail early and cheaply.”
Second, we need to acknowledge that failure has a real purpose as a driver of innovation and impact. Failure SHOULD be an option for the social sector. If we are not failing, we are not taking enough risks to solve the problem. This goes for nonprofit organizations and for-profit ventures alike — we must all see failure as an opportunity to grow.
Third, we need to share our failures liberally to learn from them and then transform them into future successes. After working with countless changemakers and as a serial social entrepreneur myself, I have learned three invaluable lessons in failure:
- Fall in love with the problem: Many entrepreneurs start with a solution to a problem and then fall so in love with that idea that they won’t change it, even when it isn’t working. A more successful process is to fall in love with the problem and be “solution agnostic.” Then, follow the customer (using principles like design thinking) until the right “idea” presents itself.
- Continuous improvement: Many entrepreneurs do not do enough research before going to market. Market research is essential, not only in finding the right solution, but also in finding the right way to implement the solution. Remember — all ideas are good ideas, but not all ideas are viable. Once you identify a viable solution, create a culture of continuous improvement to adapt to market changes, customer needs and competitive threats. To build upon this, I encourage organizations to practice “strategic planning” rather than completing a strategic plan, so that you are constantly learning from the environment and can change course as needed.
- Pivot: As many of my clients know, “pivot” is my new word of choice. When you learn new information and need to change or when you need to turn a mistake into a key lesson — you are at a tipping point and need to pivot (your mindset, your plans and sometimes even your organization’s culture) toward future success. For example, a client recently started a new program. When they realized that one of their approaches unfortunately created unintended consequences, they quickly pivoted to another approach to support the idea. That isn’t a terrible failure; that is a smart pivot.
Finally, we need to start a culture shift in the social space to get comfortable with failure and understand that failure is often just the first step toward insights, impact and real learning. Here are some quick tips on how to start this in your organization:
- Start with yourself: talk openly about your mistakes and what you learned.
- Model the behavior: encourage an environment where people can admit mistakes early and often and pivot as needed without playing the blame game.
- Embed in culture: look at your values to ensure you are stimulating new ideas and alternative viewpoints.
- Reward the right behaviors: start an award, such as The Great Pivot, to champion risk-taking and reward course corrections.
We would love to hear your opinion about failure and how you or your organization has embraced it as a norm. In my experience, if we take heed, learn and pivot, success is ours for the taking — and sharing.