Category Archives: Events

Fail Festival is an endless movement to talk honestly about failure in philanthropy and development.

Fail Festivals are crash and burn parties around the world to celebrate failure as a mark of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.

Here are a few of our more famous public events.

You can organize your own Fail Festival, or get professional help to curate a great Fail Festival at your next event.

Honest Feedback Reduces Philanthropic Failure Rates

philanthropy failure feedback

Fail Festivals are a celebration of failure as a mark of leadership and innovation in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in philanthropy.

In the spirit of examining our mistakes and learning from failure as we go beyond the easy and the simple, the Florida Philanthropic Forum recently hosted at Fail Festival at their Statewide Summit on Philanthropy.

Philanthropy Feedback Problem

One theme that cut across all the presentations is a lack of honest feedback in philanthropy.  There are often several layers of power dynamics and cultural norms that inhibit honest feedback, including:

  • Grantees scared of offending a major donor
  • Staff not wanting to share negative news
  • Peers unwilling to tell friends the truth

It takes an open mind and an open personality that embraces failure as a normal business experience to solicit and accept feedback as a true sign of caring and involvement.

How to Encourage Philanthropy Feedback

Soliciting and listening to feedback is a critical strategy in philanthropy. It is the first step in integrating feedback to enhance program effectiveness and fostering a more inclusive and impactful form of philanthropy.

1. Listen to Front Line Staff

The people closest to a problem are often closest to the solution. Actively engage with staff and community leaders and solicit their insights through various feedback mechanisms. Listen to the needs and challenges within a community with direct conversations and indirect  surveys and feedback forms.

2. Address Power Dynamics

Power dynamics can inhibit open communication. Approach feedback sessions as equal partners in the development process. This is one reason why leaders always go first in Fail Festivals – to show everyone that failure happens to everyone, and that’s okay.

3. Act on Feedback

Effective philanthropic feedback isn’t just about collecting ideas. It’s also about actively incorporating  the input into the program planning, implementation, and evaluation phases of projects.  Then ensuring that interventions are responsive and adaptive to changing contexts.

4. Showcase Changes

The final step is very important. Once programs change based on feedback, makes sure those who gave the feedback are aware that they effected the changes. This builds trust that feedback is listened to and acted upon, promotes transparency and collaboration, and creates meaningful engagement and feedback in future efforts.

7 Steps for Intelligent Failure to Reduce Risk and Increase Success

learning with intelligent failure

Failure is a mark of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible and profitable in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs. We should be demanding a minimum level of failure as a proxy for how innovative an organization is.

Why ask for failure to ensure success?

In the research paper, Innovation, exnovation and intelligent failure, the authors argue that success can foster decreased investigations, increased complacency, risk aversion, and destructive homogeneity. Conversely, modest levels of failure can promote a willingness to take risks and foster resilience-enhancing experimentation.

Success and failure are therefore siblings.  An inability to learn from experience – and particularly failure – can doom a company to repeat the same mistakes over and over without improvement.

7 Steps for Intelligent Failure

They also define seven steps companies can use to reduce the risk of innovation failure and increase the probability of pilot success. Key ideas we can all learn from to keep from staring in the next Fail Festival.

1. Well-planned, thoughtful innovation

The first step for any good innovation is to invest in careful planning of what will be done and the expected outcomes.

For example, a Before Action Report can help document all the potential outcomes.  This the opposite of post hoc rationalizations of why something was started, after its already in process and potentially failing.

2. Documented uncertain outcomes

An experiment, pilot, or test, are all by definition leading to multiple uncertain outcomes.  However, they don’t need to be unknown outcomes.

Doing a Before Action Report and creating a Success Spectrum can document and sort all the ways the project could have positive impact, and at what points can the team claim a success.

3. Clear underlying assumptions

Don’t just document the process and potential outcomes, also be clear about the underlying assumptions and background context of each innovation investment. Ask questions like:

  • Does the experiment require teams to follow or flout rules?
  • Are there unaccounted resources, like volunteer team members?
  • Can this innovation only exist in specific enabling environments?

4. Small Scale Innovations

A key aspect of intelligent failure is to make sure that companies budget and time for no-stress experiments that will not harm the organization. Something like a 10% of projects by number or value.

This is large enough to get staff attention and motivation, new enough that investors will want to support it, but small enough that failure of any one project, or even groups of them, will not cause undue stress for corporate leadership.

5. Experiments Relevant to All Teams

Companies need to make sure the context of the innovation is familiar enough to the relevant teams that it can create effective diagnosis of the failures and teams can adopt the lessons learned.

This is why I always design Fail Festivals to be organizationally diverse, bringing in staff from different levels and backgrounds so that each participant can see themselves in at least on presenter.

6. Asses early and often

I really like the intelligent failure point of assessing the innovation early and often at specific checkpoints. These pause-and-reflect sessions should be identified in advance to allow teams to quickly identify whenever the activity is diverging from the original plans.

Not all divergence is bad, and not every change means failure. If a company did a Before Action Report, then these inconsistencies can be anticipated and mitigated in real time.

7. Lessons learned are quickly shared

Along with assessing pilot projects early and often, organizations can develop a culture of innovation by talking about how teams learn from failure.

The goal is to establish failure as healthy for a company and get past thinking of failure as a catastrophic event. Failure is nuanced and failure – a sibling of success – requires risk tolerance for innovation.

Top 10 Reasons Why Businesses Will Fail in 2024 – With Examples

business failure 2024

A decade of Fail Festivals revealed multiple reasons why businesses fail every year.  Failure reasons that are also present in business and organizational studies, widely discussed in academic literature, and detailed in business case studies.

The reasons for annual business failures range from minor missteps to catastrophic collapses. The failures also form the basis for 10 reasons for business failure in 2024.

Want to avoid business bankruptcy from one of these failures? Then invest in a Fail Festival today!

10 Reasons Why Businesses Will Fail in 2024

We considered ongoing and emerging trends, technological advancements, economic conditions, and shifts in consumer behavior to predict the specific reasons why businesses will fail in 2024.

1. Digital Transformation Lag

Businesses that fail to keep up with digital transformation and technology adoption might find themselves outpaced by competitors, resulting in operational inefficiencies and lost market share.

Example: Blockbuster failed to adapt to the digital streaming trend, allowing Netflix and other streaming services to capture the market for video rentals.

2. Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities

With the increasing reliance on digital platforms, businesses that do not invest in robust cybersecurity measures could be exposed to data breaches, cyber-attacks, and significant financial and reputational damage.

Example: Equifax suffered a massive data breach in 2017 due to inadequate cybersecurity measures, compromising the personal information of millions of consumers.

3. Supply Chain Disruptions

Ongoing global uncertainties, including geopolitical tensions and climate change, may continue to cause supply chain disruptions, impacting businesses that are not diversified or resilient in their operations.

Example: Toys “R” Us struggled with supply chain issues and inventory management, contributing to its inability to compete effectively with online and big-box retailers, leading to its bankruptcy in 2017.

4. Inflation and Economic Volatility

Persistent inflationary pressures and economic instability could erode purchasing power and consumer demand, particularly impacting businesses in sectors sensitive to economic cycles.

Example: Once a retail giant, Sears failed to adapt to changing economic conditions and consumer shopping behaviors, leading to its decline and bankruptcy in 2018.

5. Remote and Hybrid Work Models

Companies that do not adapt to the evolving expectations of the workforce regarding flexibility, remote work, and work-life balance may struggle to attract and retain talent.

Example: In 2013, Yahoo famously ended its remote work policy, a move criticized for being out of touch with evolving workplace trends, contributing to its struggles in retaining talent and staying competitive.

6. Environmental and Sustainability Challenges

Businesses that ignore sustainability and environmental impact may face regulatory penalties, consumer backlash, and increased operational costs.

Example: Volkswagen faced severe backlash and financial penalties due to the emissions scandal in 2015, where it was found to have cheated on emissions tests, highlighting the risks of ignoring environmental responsibilities.

7. Changing Consumer Trends

Failing to adapt to changing consumer preferences, such as the demand for personalized experiences and ethical products, could lead to declining sales and brand relevance.

Example: Kodak failed to pivot effectively to digital photography, despite inventing the first digital camera, as it clung to its film-based business model for too long.

8. Poor Financial Management

Businesses that do not effectively manage their finances, including cash flow, debt, and investment in growth opportunities, may face liquidity issues or bankruptcy.

Example: Enron collapsed in 2001 due to fraudulent financial practices and poor financial management, marking one of the most infamous corporate bankruptcies in history.

9. Regulatory and Compliance Failures

New regulations, particularly in technology, privacy, and environmental sectors, could pose challenges for businesses that are not prepared or compliant, leading to fines or operational restrictions.

Example: Google decided to shut down its social networking platform, Google+, in 2019 after failing to disclose a data leak affecting hundreds of thousands of users, showcasing the impact of mishandling user data and privacy issues.

10. A Single Revenue Stream

Companies heavily reliant on a single product, service, or market may be vulnerable to shifts in consumer demand, emerging competitors, or market saturation.

Example: Blackberry failed to innovate beyond its initial success with secure email and messaging devices, resulting in a significant loss of market share to smartphones running on iOS and Android platforms.

10 Reasons Why Businesses Fail Every Year

Business failures occur every year. Failures can occur in business organizations at various levels, often categorized by their impact, scope, and the stage at which they occur.

Below are 10 reasons why businesses fail year after year.  Each failure is timeless – the source of business failure for centuries.

  1. Individual Performance Failure: This occurs when an individual employee fails to meet their performance goals due to lack of skills, motivation, or understanding of their role. Examples: your peers, anyone fired for non-performance.
  2. Team Dysfunction: When a team fails to collaborate effectively, it can lead to missed deadlines, poor quality of work, and conflict among team members. Examples:
  3. Project Failure: A project may fail to achieve its objectives due to poor planning, inadequate resources, or unrealistic timelines, leading to wasted efforts and financial losses.
  4. Operational Inefficiency: This level of failure involves the day-to-day operations of a business becoming inefficient or costly, often due to outdated processes or technologies.
  5. Financial Mismanagement: Poor financial management, including inadequate budgeting, excessive debt, or fraudulent activities, can severely impact a company’s viability.
  6. Strategic Failures: When a business fails to adapt to market changes or chooses the wrong strategic direction, it may lose its competitive edge or miss out on key opportunities.
  7. Leadership and Governance Failures: This occurs when poor leadership or weak corporate governance leads to a lack of direction, unethical behavior, or decision-making failures at the highest levels.
  8. Crisis Mismanagement: Inadequate response to a crisis, such as a public relations scandal or a natural disaster, can exacerbate the situation, damaging the organization’s reputation and financial health.
  9. Market Failure: This involves a business losing its market share or becoming irrelevant due to changes in consumer preferences, technological advancements, or the emergence of superior competitors.
  10. Complete Organizational Collapse: The most severe level of failure, this occurs when a combination of the above failures leads to bankruptcy, liquidation, or the complete shutdown of business operations.

Each failure requires specific strategies for prevention and recovery, involving proactive management, regular audits, adaptive strategies, effective leadership, and crisis management capabilities.

Identifying and addressing failures at early stages can prevent escalation and mitigate potential damages. Adapting to these challenges requires businesses to be agile, resilient, and forward-thinking, with a focus on innovation and strategic planning.

5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Your Work

talk about failure at work

I recently led a Fail Festival for Grantmakers In Aging’s annual conference. It was wonderful to participate in-person again after hosting virtual Fail Fests during the pandemic.

GIA is a community of funders mobilizing money and ideas to strengthen resources for us, as we age. They were excited for their members to speak about their failures in supporting older adults and how we can all learn to speak about failure in our organizations.

5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Work

I was honored when their CEO brought forth four ideas from the Fail Festival in her keynote presentation to close the conference. She inspired many members to reflect on their organization’s culture and adopt these themes.

1. Recognize and Accept Failure

Life and Fail Festivals teach us that failure happens. Failure is multifaceted, nuanced, and occurring right now in each of our organizations. We all know it. Now accept it. Then talk about it and learn from it.

Your organization does not need to have a Fail Fest each year to recognize that failure happens and to learn from it. The point is not to celebrate failure for the sake of a good laugh. We want to celebrate failure as innovation and learning.

2. Honestly Talk About Failure

We should all do a better job of talking about failure openly in our organizations. There are many ways to do this.

  • We can start by being more honest with our staff.
  • We can be more accepting with grantees and partners.
  • We can even have our own internal Fail Fests.

Whatever method we choose, the Fail Fest concept should give you strength to take calculated risks, to think big, invest in the big leaps moving us all in a new direction.

3. Encourage Innovations

How can we encourage innovation in our own organizations? In our partners and grantees? Here is an idea: fail small, fast, and open.

Set up and fund experiments – too small for log frames or onerous reporting requirements, but large enough to try out an idea. Then shower your innovators with these grants. The only requirement is to honestly, openly test a specific theory of change and document the results.

Do not anticipate success with all the ideas that you invest in. In fact, expect multiple failures, just like a venture capitalist. Invest in the ideas that work, don’t sweat the ideas that do not.

Crucially, have everyone present their idea and result publicly – so we can also learn faster.

4. Demand a Minimum Level of Failure

If failure is a mark of innovation and risk taking, then we should be demanding a minimum level of failure as a proxy for how innovative an organization is.

Say something like a 10% of projects by number or value.

This is large enough to get staff attention and motivation, new enough that donors and funders will want to support it, but small enough that failure of any one project, or even groups of them, will not cause undue stress for organizational leadership.

5. Make Learning from Failure a Norm

Now along with accepting failure, we should expect the organization to show it learned from that failure – in that project and in their activities overall. And be public about it.

The goal is to establish a level of failure as healthy for the overall philanthropic community – for us, and for donors, and the public in general. So we can get past failure-as-catastrophic mindset and into thinking of failure as risk tolerance in innovation.

In fact, the point of Fail Festival events is to show that failure is an option and it is acceptable – today and throughout the year

Learning from Failure Virtually – Online via Zoom

learning from failure zoom

For many years, I’ve focused on in-person Fail Festival sessions. Either as big events onto themselves, or as the keynote presentation in an annual conference or signature event.

I love the humanity of connecting presenters to their audience in real life with every participant feeling a keen sense of connection with the speakers and each other. The casual conversations after Fail Festivals often bring forth new and exciting connections, with people saying things like:

  • “Oh my God! I am living your presentation right now – failing in a key project. How can I turn our program around?”
  • “Wow, I think I’m about to start an activity that looks just like the one you spoke about. What can I do to change our trajectory?”
  • “You were speaking the truth in your talk. I’ve done that exact failure at work, but I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about it for years now. Thank you for giving voice to my experience.”

Virtual Fail Festival Events

Recently, I was challenged by Philea, the Philanthropy Europe Association, to create a virtual Fail Festival for their team.

Philea is a pan-European platform for foundations, philanthropic organisations and networks to share best practices across the continent.  The foundation is based in the Netherlands. Their team works across Europe. I am based in the USA. An online event was our only option.

This was not my first virtual Fail Festival. I’ve done online events for years now – starting well before the pandemic. However, I do want to share how the concept of learning from failure has universal application, regardless of location.

This event was a success even over video collaboration software.

4 Lessons Learned from Failing Online

Online events obviously have a different experience than in-person events. There are also many guides on how to do a successful virtual event. Therefore, I’m going to focus specially on the four lessons learned for Fail Festival events.

1. Create a Clear Agenda and Objectives

I always meet with the failure presenters multiple times before an event – its one of my key services – and this is even more important for online events where speakers often don’t directly communicate with each other just before speaking.

Participants also need to know the detailed agenda, the Fail Festival objectives, and how they are expected to act and interact during the session. Specifically to be attentive, stay focused on the speaker, and show both by keeping their camera on.

2. Promote Interaction and Engagement

When participants are looking at their screens for an online event, there is great temptation to multi-task if the presenter isn’t captivating – and sometimes, even when they are!

Three tricks I employ to keep participants engaged is to:

  • Ask them to turn off notifications and email alerts, the worst offenders to deep concentration. Best if they can close all their applications expect Zoom, Teams, Meet, etc.
  • Be sure that speakers build audience participation into their talk by doing pop quizzes, open questions, and good jokes. Nothing makes people tune in like hearing everyone laugh and not knowing why.
  • Call on people to share their experiences that are similar to the presenter. This needs to be coordinated in advance – I don’t like putting people on the spot – but when done right, it makes all participants listen harder, thinking they might be called on too.

3. Ensure Diverse and Inclusive Leaders

I always design Fail Festivals to be organizationally diverse, bringing in staff from different levels and backgrounds so that each participant can see themselves in at least on presenter.

When going online, its even more important to ensure geographic diversity to show that each region is engaged, and not just headquarters.

This also means that not everyone may be comfortable in the same language, even if it is the official language of the organization. I take extra care working with non-native English speakers to ensure their terms and expressions will translate to native speakers as they intend.

4. Incorporate Social Time

One of the most effective team building tools during Fail Festivals is to simply allow the teams to spend time together. This is harder over online platforms, but still possible with good facilitation.

Especially when the CEO, Executive Director, or Board Chair has presented their failure first, creating psychological safety for everyone else to be honest about failure.

Once “the boss” shows that failure is indeed an option, then other staff feed embodied to share their own challenges and mistakes, helping the team improve their work as a whole.